Identity theft protection

By Shari Middleton, Guest Columnist

It seems like almost every day, there is a new data breach in the news that has potentially endangered consumers or businesses by putting their private information at risk. And it’s more than just stolen credit cards and email scams these days. Criminals are finding ways to hack into high-profile institutions and government agencies to steal personal information like Social Security numbers.

As criminals get more creative, we have to take extra steps in order to protect ourselves. Here are some ways you can protect yourself and your business from identity theft:

Make sure your passwords and security questions are strong. This may seem obvious, but the most popular passwords of 2014 were “123456” and “password.” It’s recommended that your passwords be complex and include a combination of symbols, numbers and upper case and lower case letters. And change them regularly.

Equally as important is choosing a strong “reset” question. We call these “out of wallet” questions – information you wouldn’t find if your wallet was stolen. Questions like “What is your mother’s maiden name?” or “What street do you live on?” could be easily found. Instead, choose random questions and answers like, “What was your first concert?” or “What was your first pet’s name?”

Update your company’s policies regarding email. We’ve long been aware of criminals hacking into personal emails and targeting friends on contact lists, but now they are also targeting businesses. Criminals could possibly hack into your email and pose as your boss to authorize a financial transaction, for example. So now companies have to tighten their policies with stipulations that any corporate financial transaction must be authorized by phone or in person.

While technology has brought us a long way in how we communicate with one another and conduct business, we almost have to revert back to the old way of doing things in sensitive situations to protect our information.

Be cautious when mailing bills. Criminals are now stealing bills right out of people’s mailboxes. And once they have access to your checks, they have your account information, address, bank name, etc. Don’t place bill payments in your mailbox. Instead, drop them off directly at the post office, hand them to your mail carrier or transition to online bill pay. With online payments, your financial institution uses encryption technology and has secure firewalls to protect your information.

Protect your important documents. Invest in a home safe and paper shredder. Lock up important documents like Social Security cards, birth certificates, checkbooks and other financial information. Shred any documents or mail that contain sensitive information.

Travel light. Don’t feel the need to carry your checkbook and every credit card in your purse or wallet at all times. Carry just what you’ll need for the day. Leave everything else at home locked in your safe.

Review your accounts daily. Banks work hard to stay ahead of the criminals. But while they have encryption technology and secure firewalls, as I previously mentioned, that doesn’t stop someone from possibly getting access to your debit and credit card numbers in other ways. Check your account every morning to make sure everything that has cleared was authorized by you. Morning is the best time to check, so if you find something that could cause a problem, you can take immediate action, thus preventing a potential loss.

Utilize a credit monitoring service. Fraud alerts through credit bureaus like Equifax can be placed on your credit file at no charge. However, for a nominal monthly fee, greater protection can be achieved by enrolling in a credit monitoring service.  This type of service will alert you of any unusual activity that could impact your credit score. You can also pull a free credit report up to three times a year through different credit bureaus. Visit for more information.

Secure all electronic devices. An anti-virus program on your computer is still a necessity, but you should also keep it password-protected. The same goes for your mobile phone since nowadays phones are essentially mini-computers.

It’s a good rule of thumb to be generally cautious when it comes to your privacy. Consider the information some apps and websites require you to provide before you move forward with accessing them. Some of the information is quite personal. And before you make any kind of transaction, always be sure you’re working with a trusted source.

Shari Middleton is Senior Vice President, Retail Branch Manager with USAmeriBank. She is based at the Ybor City branch.

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