Benjamin Franklin once famously wrote, "In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." However, credit expert Adam Levin argues that we can now count identity theft as life's third certainty. Indeed, more and more experts agree that typical online users can expect to be the victim of data theft at least once in their lives. We recently discussed on this post how one Ponemon Institute study, as reported by CNN Money, estimates that criminals have compromised the personal information of half of American adults in the last 12 months alone. Ultimately, identity theft protection is less about prevention and more about mitigating risk.
"You are going to get got, and you may even get got taking my advice—but you owe it to yourself to make yourself as safe as you can," Levin writes on ABC News' website. "The wolves of cybercrime pick off the weakest among us first. Regularly monitoring your credit scores, credit reports and financial accounts can help you catch an identity thief quickly … and smart account security can make you a less-attractive target for hackers."
Each American adult is entitled to one free credit report annually from the three major credit bureaus — Experian, TransUnion and Equifax. However, in the age of the data breach, you may want to check your creditworthiness far more often than just once per year. Consider investing in a credit monitoring service to keep an eye on your financial activity. While such services cannot guarantee that you won't be a victim of identity theft, they can mitigate your risk by alerting you to certain activity that may indicate credit fraud. When you are alerted to this activity you have the opportunity to stop further criminal activity under your name.
You should also take aggressive steps to make your various online accounts more secure, and one recommended move may surprise you. Nowadays, it is far too easy for cyber criminals to uncover your pet's name or the maiden name of your mother using online records and social media. That's why Levin suggests deliberately lying when you set up your answers to automatic security questions. By creating nonsense responses that only you know, you give yourself an important extra layer of protection. (Just make sure that you remember your false answers!)
It's also crucial that you use a hard-to-guess password for each of your digital profiles. Employ a combination of upper and lower case letters, numbers and symbols, avoiding words and names. Some people like to generate mnemonic devices to help them come up with seemingly random combinations of characters. For example, "The boys and Harriet ate lunch in the fort in the yard again today!" could represent the password: "TbaH8litfity2d!"
Each password must be completely unique to its corresponding account. Simply varying one or two characters may not keep you safe online. If hackers uncover the login information for your Twitter account, they may use it to get into your banking account.
Obviously, unless you have a photographic memory, it is extremely difficult to remember various login credentials for upwards of a dozen accounts or more. That's why many cyber security experts recommend using a password manager to effortlessly organize your passwords. This digital vault allows you the ease of single sign on while making it more difficult for hackers to access your personal information.