Over the Holiday season, specifically between Nov. 27 and Dec. 15, Target became the victim of a massive data breach in which over 40 million shoppers had their credit cards and encrypted PINs stolen. This information can be used to create replica credit cards or sold as a part of the ongoing threat of identity theft.
When it comes to protecting your identity; using online shopping services, as convenient as they may be, always open you up to the increased chances of becoming a victim. There are some simple rules and tips you can put into action right now that will significantly lower the odds of you becoming the next victim.
1. Keep your computer secure!
This may sound easier than it actually is, but keeping your computer secure, both digitally and physically is a first step of being pro-active in protecting yourself. First, try and shop only at reputable and well-known websites. Make sure to have your computer connected behind a Router (even if you're not wireless), have a good Anti-Virus (I recommend the free version of "Avast" right now) and be overly cautious about the websites you visit, e-mails you open, attachments you download and advertisements you click on will be a huge part of the ongoing battle. Without more advanced software or hardware, I would also highly advise against shopping online at any public WiFi hotspot. Make sure your computer is physically protected by having a password on your computer, restricting anyone from physically moving it (if it's a laptop) and making sure you NEVER throw away a hard drive, phone, computer or anything with your data on it away in the trash without securely erasing it first (upcoming article).
2. Monitor your accounts.
Make sure you keep an eye on not only your bank accounts frequently, but also your credit report as well. Someone may open up credit in your name and go on a spending spree. Many websites offer "free" credit reports, but most are not free. "AnnualCreditReport.Com" is one of the few legitimate websites offering free once-a-year credit reports online.
3. Subscribe to an Identity Protection Service.
We have all heard of companies like LifeLock and others who promise to protect you in the unfortunate event you end up becoming a victim of identity theft. Basically, there are two ways to deal with identity theft: Make personal information harder to steal, and make stolen personal information harder to use. We all know the former doesn't work, so that leaves the latter. LifeLock does a bunch of clever things. They monitor the national address database, and alert you if your address changes. They look for your credit and debit card numbers on hacker and criminal websites and assist you in getting a new number if they see it. They have a million-dollar service guarantee -- for complicated legal reasons, they can't call it insurance -- to help you recover if your identity is ever stolen. You will need to decide if the $120 a year price tag is worth it for you.
4. Request "PIN and Chip" from your Bank.
There is a technology around called PIN and Chip, which has become standard in many countries around the world, except for the US. PIN and Chip ensures that your card has a unique chip implanted in it that matches a unique PIN code. This makes it almost impossible for thieves to print your card information on a blank credit card and use it. It does not protect against online sales and many stores do not offer the technology to even accept PIN and Chip. Many banks, though, offer this and it would be worth looking in to, especially if you travel internationally, where it is almost universally used and accepted. It is not standard as of right now in the US because of the increased cost per card.
5. Use a Reloadable Card if you suspect...
If you are shopping around a busy Holiday season, and you want to be extra cautious, it certainly would not hurt to purchase yourself a reloadable debit card from a local outlet store or even online through Visa or MasterCard. This has a set amount of cash on it and can be used in stores as well as online. If it gets stolen, your personal information is not on it and it only has a set amount of cash, which you can remove online if you detect it being used by someone else. It is an inconvenience and likely only something you might want to do around a busy shopping time of the year when identity theft is more prevalent.
These are just a few tips that can drastically reduce your chances of becoming the next victim of identity theft, both online and in-store. Identity theft is a billion dollar business where bad guys are out to steal your good name and reputation in any malicious way possible. Because millions of us now do almost all of our shopping online, we must make all efforts to stay secure by enforcing privacy standards at all times.
MATTHEW SGHERZI lives in Tehachapi where he has operated an IT business since 2007 (tehachapicomputers.com).