Identity theft happens — companies, service providers, and even the government has been hacked and there is a strong chance they may have your personal information. I was affected personally by the Office of Personnel Management/government hack which handles private information on countless people, including the family members of those who have security clearances. At least 18 million peoples' information was illegally obtained in that attacks, generally blamed on the Chinese government. It's no fun having to spending hours getting on the phone with credit companies, submitting paperwork disclaiming incidents, and other laborious tasks after your identity has been stolen. But there are some of the tricks to look for and ways to protect yourself from this happening to you.
The most important piece of your personal information to protect is your social security number. There are times you may be required to share it — cable, credit checks, etc. — but outside of that, do not offer it up, or at least know how they plan to use it. Once that information is out there identity thieves can open up credit lines to make purchases, and much more. And changing your social security number won't get you out of trouble, either — it's still linked to your original number.
Like SSNs, everyone has passwords and it stinks when the wrong people get a hold of them. I suggest using very complex passwords with upper and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols, though, not all services require or suggest it. And never use the same password on all your accounts. A handful of alpha-numeric passwords may not be the easiest to remember, but you can always write them down and keep them in a safe space. Keeping hard copies of passwords is a long-time IT industry no-no, but I've broken form that tradition and don't trust password saving programs others rely on — they can be hacked. I take my chances with a small notebook that I keep in a drawer with account nicknames and passwords. Also consider changing account passwords on a regular basis — I do so every six months or so. If you use a variation of the same password, be sure it's not too similar.
Email is the most common way someone can steal your personal information. There are numerous nicknames — like phishing or spear phishing — and processes hackers use like bogus and corrupt web links. Blindly clicking on links and replying to phishing accounts will lead you to some perilous places — always read your email thoroughly, and make sure you recognize the email address before clicking and replying. If you have any doubts or concerns, leave it alone and call the sender, or wait for a follow up.
Email usage is out of control these days with store sales, casual conversations and business communications coming and going constantly. I suggest a throwaway email address, or two, to use for the services that really do not need your personal account information. Your main email account should be reserved for taking care of bills and other sensitive information. And don't disregard any messages coming from your email service provider, which may be sharing news of a recent hack. Many of us use email accounts outside of Gmail, etc. and can easily overlook some important news in our inboxes. If you are using a company that has been hacked, get rid of the account or at least stop using it.
Social sites like Facebook and LinkedIn can put your information at risk, too, so be on your toes when networking in digital social spheres. It's very common for Facebook accounts to be hacked, you probably have friends that have been or are currently. Once hacked, not only is your personal information submitted to Facebook accessible, but more information that could lead the hacker to access more important accounts. And when you get a notification from someone, make sure it's a real someone (if you don't already know them) before interacting, and limit posts that may entice hackers to your profile or lead them to other accounts. Don't stop enjoying your electronic social life, but pay close attention.
Email and social media may be more ubiquitous, but downloading software and free programs creates another avenue for identity thieves — so tread lightly. Many free programs are free because they're most likely selling your information for profit. These kinds of programs can open a back door to your computer and personal information, too, so make sure any software you're downloading is from a reputable source. Try a web search of the name and adding keywords like “scam,” “sell your information,” or “untrustworthy” and see what you get.
Everything is fine, though, because you have security software installed, right? Wrong. As great as they sound, antivirus software and email protection can't guarantee anything — a motivated thief can easily get around these measures (yes, even on an Apple). Just ask the Lifelock CEO who ended up being hacked 13 times after publishing his social security number in a campaign to promote the service.
Don't be cocky, the Internet is a scary place nowadays, and it's not worth losing your personal information.
Brian Koch is an avid techie who's worked in the tech field for dozens of years with Compaq/HP, his own pc business Techpertise, outdoor photography, and more. He has lived with his wife Stacy in Colorado for over 16 years. E-mail questions, comments, suggestions to Brian: firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @Techpertise.