Criminals have become adept at taking over individual bank, brokerage, credit card and online shopping accounts. It’s called account takeover, and checking, savings and credit card accounts are prime targets. “Opportunities for identity thieves are everywhere,” says Kathy Stokes, AARP fraud expert. “But we have the power to shut them down by taking practical steps to protect ourselves.”
Here’s how to shield your money and your existing accounts.
- Create strong passwords and user IDs, change them frequently, and don’t use the same ones for all your accounts. These steps make it harder for criminals to steal the virtual keys to your accounts and limit the damage they can do if they crack your code.
- Consider using a password manager, which generates and stores long, complicated passwords. The basic offerings among companies are the same, though there are differences in price, storage methods and ancillary services.
- Monitor your credit reports and credit score. Thieves can use your information to set up new credit cards in your name with a fake address. This means you’ll never receive bills, so your first clue that something is amiss may be a credit score left in ruins by unpaid bills or delinquent charges on your credit report. You are entitled to receive a free copy of your credit report once every 12 months through AnnualCreditReport.com.
- Explore putting a lock or a freeze on your credit reports compiled by Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Both a lock and a freeze block access to your credit reports, making it highly unlikely that anyone could open a credit card in your name. As of Sept. 21, all credit freezes will be free thanks to a new federal law (previously, some states permitted fees to be charged for freezes).
- Don’t give out vital data like Social Security and bank account numbers to strangers calling over the phone. If you think the call may be legitimate, ask for the person’s full name and a number to reach out to him later.
- Consider buying identity-theft insurance, but carefully read the fine print. Basic insurance, for example, will cover only the costs of remediating your identity, not the losses.
- Don’t ignore your snail mail. Make sure you aren’t receiving unsolicited credit cards or collection notices for products and services you never purchased.
- Exercise caution when clicking on websites and emails. Thieves have become expert in forging the look of legitimate sites.
- If you typically do your banking in person at a nearby branch, consider creating an online account. You’ll be able to closely monitor account activity and spot breaches quickly. You could also prevent a thief from opening an account in your name.
- Ask your bank or brokerage house representative if the institution provides account activity notifications and how to implement them.
The AARP Fraud Watch Network can provide more information about identity theft and other scams.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect a new federal law prohibiting fees for credit freezes