Five free ways to protect your digital identity
Your digital identity is more than your name, address and birth date. It can include the details of your bank account, your social security number, credit card info, medical history, and other Personally Identifiable Information (PII), including information that you might use to answer the “challenge questions” (first pet, first address, etc.) some websites use to confirm that you are who you say you are. Digital identity theft is an attempt to steal (or trick you into giving it up) the information necessary to get access to your accounts and steal money, purchase items under your name, or do mischief.
In 2019 alone, identity theft affected more than half a million people, making it the number one complaint received by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Online identity theft or hacking can take different forms, including computer viruses and spyware, ransomware, and phishing emails. It can cost you hundreds or thousands of dollars, ruin your credit and your reputation (for example, by making it more difficult to pass an employment background check), and even result in your arrest for a crime someone else committed under your name.
You can buy internet security software to help protect your identity online. But, for some of us, money is tight. Fortunately, there are things you can do for free to help protect your digital identity.
New and Better Passwords
If you do just one thing immediately, this should be it. Many of us are at risk because of passwords that are too short, too simple (all letters or all numbers with expected capitalizations), too obvious (your pet’s name, your child’s name, your address, the date of your birthday, etc.) or that we reuse again and again to log into different accounts. If an identity thief can hack into it at one location, he or she will almost certainly try it in other accounts, making a bad thing much worse. A secure password should have at least 8-10 characters, a combination of upper-and-lower-case letters, plus numbers and symbols. If you do something like this for each online account—and then replace those passwords regularly—it will help you stay a step ahead of a hacker.
Be Cautious with your Social Security Number
Some requests for your social security are on the level. When you get a new job or open a banking account you will be required to give them your Social Security number. Sometimes, a utility or landlord will ask for your social security number as part of a credit check. But there are people who pose as your bank, a utility or a legitimate-looking business and ask for your social security number to steal it. These are often “Phishing” attempts. (See below.) Real government and financial institutions won’t ask you to enter your social security number in an email. In general, don’t give it out unless you’re sure who you’re dealing with and why they need it.
Be Careful What You Click
“Phishing” is when you get a message, usually in your email or on social media, that looks legitimate at first, but isn’t. Often these messages sound urgent—there’s a problem with one of your important accounts or something that needs your immediate attention. You’re asked for personal information or to click on a link or a download. What they’re actually trying to do is steal your information or install a virus or spyware that will secretly collect your passwords and other private information or harm your operating system. Remember that most financial institutions won’t ask for sensitive information without first sending you to a secure website. You can go to the company’s official website and contact them there. Or call the customer service number they provide on that site.
Keep Your PII Off of Social Media
We get it—social media is about sharing parts of your life with online friends. But be careful not to share too much detail. Just because some social sites give you the opportunity to share your address and phone number doesn’t mean you have to do it. Now is also a good time to check your social media privacy settings. You might want to reset them to give people less access to the information in your account.
Let’s say you’ve been looking online for a hard-to-find item or a great price on something you need. Your search brings you to a website with the item or price you want. You’re anxious to make the purchase. But wait. Have you ever heard of the company offering you the item? Check around. Look at reviews, Google the company to see if they’ve had any issues. When in doubt, skip over the site and keep looking.