The internet has made our lives easier in many ways, primarily because it allows information to travel at an almost impossible pace. Unfortunately, this also means that the amount of time it takes to send your grandma a selfie from your vacation is just as fast as it takes for a thief to get the information he or she needs to steal your identity.
Identity theft can happen to anyone at any time, and often, a victim isn’t even aware they’ve been taken advantage of until it’s too late. There are many people who may think they won’t be targets because they “aren’t important,” they don’t own much, or their bank balance doesn’t include a lot of zeros, but they’d be wrong. The fact is, identity thieves cast a wide net to ensnare common people in ways they least suspect. Filling your tank at the gas station, shopping at the mall or posting pictures from your vacation online can potentially expose you to having your identity compromised.
To help us all learn to better protect ourselves, I spoke with Rod Vanstone, one of our CyberSecurity experts at Allstate Canada. Rod’s job is to work with our I.T. department to ensure our systems are secure, so he knows a lot about security both in the virtual and physical worlds.
What Information Are Thieves Looking for?
According to Rod, thieves need one thing in order to steal your identity and create a “new you”: information. He explained this information can range by different types, including:
• Vehicle Registration
• Utility Bills
• Insurance Documents
• Prescription receipts and medication bottles
This list is by no means exhaustive. Some of these pieces on their own may not give a thief enough data to steal your identity, but identity thieves will go to great lengths to piece together the components of a new identity that they can use for fraud. “Identity thieves will dumpster dive, steal your mail, engage in phishing schemes and even skim information from legitimate places of business,” says Rod.
And of course, Rod points out identity thieves are also lurking online, using malware (spyware and other viruses) to help themselves to your online passwords. In some cases, they have used social networks like Facebook to gather information about potential targets.
“Identity thieves have stepped up their efforts to get information,” says Rod. “So it’s important that we do our best to keep it out of their hands.”
Protect Yourself Offline:
Keep info “safe”: Rod suggests keeping all physical files stored safely in a secure location. This includes personal identification like passports and SIN cards, lease information, ownership certificates, insurance documents and tax documents. He points out that if you have a safe in your home, it’s probably the best place to keep those documents as they’ll be protected from fire, flooding and prying eyes.
Beware of “engineers”: … and not the kind who design bridges either. Rod told me about scam artists who use a technique called “social engineering,” which involves deceiving their target to get information that will allow them to steal money or set up fraudulent accounts. This technique involves someone calling (or sometimes emailing) and asking for sensitive personal information while pretending to represent a company you do business with. He explained to me that “if someone contacts you and asks for sensitive information, it’s okay to say no. You can then contact the company directly yourself to verify the call.” Legitimate businesses will not contact you and ask for passwords or account numbers.
Make caution a habit: It’s not enough to only be wary in particular situations. Rod suggests making securing your personal information a part of your routine. Here are three good ways to protect your information:
- Shred old documents. Your trash can be a wealth of information in the wrong hands. If you don’t want to shred documents yourself, there are professional services that specialize in disposing of sensitive documents.
- Regularly monitor your accounts and statements for suspicious activity. If you’ve been compromised, it helps to find out sooner rather than later.
- Get your phone number added to the Do Not Call List to cut down on anonymous calls. If you’re contacted by phone by organizations don’t know, there are ways to report them.
Stay Cyber Secure Online:
Protect your password: Rod explained that password management is a major key to protecting your information online. He suggested that everyone should use a good mix of characters and numbers when crafting a password and that people use only one password per site. Also, never share your password or keep it written down.
Don’t leave your devices unattended: If you have to leave your laptop, phone or tablet out of your sight, make sure the device is locked. This also goes for any flash drives or external drives that may contain sensitive information.
Beware of attachments: Attachments can contain harmful malware that can track your activity online for all the wrong people. If you’re suspicious of an email or its sender, then don’t open its attachment. If the email is from someone you know, but the title or message has poor grammar, obvious spelling mistakes or is about a subject you don’t discuss, check to make sure your contact actually sent the email. The same applies to emails with suspicious looking URLs. When in doubt, don’t click.
Watch where you browse: When you’re going to do any banking or shopping online, make sure you’re doing it on a device you trust, and on a secure network. Rod explained that using public computers, networks or public Wi-Fi can expose your information.
Back that stuff up: Never keep all your data in one place. Make sure your files are backed up regularly and that your anti-virus software is current.
Don’t hook up with strange hardware: Be careful about what you decide to plug in to your computer. Malware can be spread through infected flash drives, external hard drives, and even smartphones.
Stop sharing so much: One thing we discussed at length was how important it is that people watch what they say and reveal about themselves on social media. Information is power and criminals today can learn a lot about you based on what you post online. It’s often easy to figure out where a person works, their address, and their children’s names. Access to this information can be the gateway to even more valuable data about you – so be careful.
Do you have any tips about keeping your information safe? We’d love to hear about them in the comments!