‘Tis the season for identity theft.  According to a recent survey conducted by Experian, 24% of people reported being a victim of identity theft or fraud during the holidays.1  During the holidays, we’re often so distracted while out shopping or searching for bargains online that we let our guard down.  Before you go shopping, take some steps to help protect your identity.

Online Data– Be smart when you’re online.  Social media is a great way for thieves to learn more about you.  Take steps to limit the amount of personal information you share (employer, where you’ve lived, family members, etc) and make sure that your privacy settings limit what others can see about you.  It might be okay for your friends to see what you’ve been up to, but you don’t want to give potential thieves your personal information.

When you make online purchases, resist the temptation to store your credit card online with that company.  While it will make repeat purchases easier, it leaves your information vulnerable with their data center.  Also, use your credit card rather than your debit card if possible.

Double-check websites before you go buying things to ensure they are legitimate.  We’re often looking for deals or in such a rush that we overlook obvious signs of a phishing scam.  Make sure the sites you use start with “https” and confirm the spelling of any sites you reach after clicking a link on another site.

Resist the free Wi-Fi while you’re out shopping.  Hackers can easily gain access to your devices and information if you’re on a network that doesn’t require a password.  You should have to enter a password in your Wi-Fi settings before gaining access to a website.  If you’re entering a password into a website, the connection itself isn’t secure. 

Skimmers- If you’re shopping in stores, watch for devices that are attached to credit card readers or ATMs.  If the device doesn’t look quite right, use another register or ATM to lower your risk of your credit card number being stolen.  Also, don’t leave your credit card out in the open where someone could take a picture of it.  Take it out, run it, and immediately put it back in your wallet or purse.

Passwords- Keep in mind that easily remembered passwords are also easily hacked, and passwords used on multiple sites provide more opportunities for thieves.  Take the time to create complex passwords that are unique for each website and update them every few months.  If you’d like to have all of your passwords in one, easily accessible place, consider doing some research for a password manager.

Consider using two-factor authentication for your accounts.  With two-factor authentication, you typically get a text or email with a code after you enter your password online.  This helps to verify that you’re the one trying to access your account.  If someone else tries to access your account, you should be immediately notified via text or email.

Email- First, don’t open an email from someone you don’t know.  Nobody is giving you $1,000,000.  Second, don’t click a link or open an attachment, even from people you know, if it seems suspicious.  Your friends don’t normally send a web link to you with “hey check this out.” We’re all busy, but don’t be too busy to carefully read and consider what you’re doing with an email.

Take the time to periodically look at the folders you have in your email account to make sure nothing new has been added.  I’ve had several clients who had their email accounts hacked.  The hackers set up a separate folder in their email account and started emailing companies trying to get the client’s personal information or money.  Fortunately for my clients, nothing was stolen, but you can’t be too careful. 

At home– A couple of easy steps to take at home are forwarding or freezing your mail delivery when you’re away from home and shredding your personal documents.  When you’re out of town, thieves can get your statements out of your mailbox and use those statements to forward phones, add on services to utilities, and have credit cards issued to a different address.  Taking a few minutes to go to USPS online could save you countless hours of fixing problems down the road.  You can also sign up for Informed Delivery through USPS (https://informeddelivery.usps.com).  Informed Delivery is a service that emails you pictures of your mail to be delivered that day.  Using Informed Delivery will help you quickly notice if mail is stolen from your mailbox.

Make sure to shred your personal documents.  Personal documents aren’t just those with your account number, birth date, or Social Security number listed.  Nearly all the offers you receive in the mail for things such as credit cards, personal loans, or home loans have tracking information on them that a thief can use.  Those firms already have most of your personal information on file and the tracking numbers can help a thief skip a few steps while getting credit under your name.

Monitor Your Accounts- While it’s important to take steps to help prevent data theft, you also need to monitor your accounts for unauthorized activity.  Yes, this means reading your statements.  It can also mean using a service that allows you to review your account activity weekly. 

Go online and log into your financial accounts to determine if they have an option for sending you alerts.  These alerts might be able to notify you via text or email when there’s activity in your accounts or someone accessing your account online. 

Often someone will test your credit cards by charging a small amount a few times to verify that your account is active.  If you’re not getting alerts for unusual activity or keeping up with your accounts online, you might miss these small charges.  By the time a thief starts charging large amounts, it will be too late.  While charges are often credited back by your credit card company, not all charges will be.  If this happens on your debit card, it can be disastrous for your checking account.

Credit Agencies -Take advantage of your free annual credit report by visiting www.annualcreditreport.com.  This will let you see if anyone has been adding accounts under your identity.

You may also want to contact the major credit bureaus to freeze or restrict your credit.  That could help prevent someone from being able to take out a new credit line in your name.  Credit freezes can also restrict someone’s ability to open a new bank or investment account under your name.

Each agency may charge a fee for freezing and unfreezing your credit unless you are already the victim of identity theft.  However, some credit agencies provide a free service that is similar to freezing your credit.  Keep in mind that the time and cost for setting these up are minimal compared to the time and cost of resolving identity theft.

Also, if you have minor children, you may want to look into freezing their credit.  Someone using your child’s credit could go undetected for years or decades before the theft is discovered.  This would be a horrible way for a child to start their independent, financial lives.  Each state has laws and permitted fees regarding credit freezes for minors.  Check with each credit bureau for their policies.

Visit these sites to learn more about freezing your credit:

https://www.transunion.com/credit-freeze/place-credit-freeze2

http://www.equifax.com/CreditReportAssistance/?/CreditReportAssistance

https://www.experian.com/freeze/center.html

https://www.innovis.com/securityFreeze/index

The Benjamin Franklin axiom that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” certainly applies to identity theft.  Only you can take the precautions necessary to reduce the likelihood of identity theft.  A little time upfront could save you a significant amount of time, stress, and money in the long run.

The opinions voiced in this material are for informational purposes only and are not intended to provide specific advice to any individual.  Consult your legal, tax, and/or financial advisor to determine what is appropriate for your situation.

1 https://www.experian.com/blogs/ask-experian/survey-some-consumers-would-risk-identity-theft-for-an-online-holiday-deal/

As a Registered Investment Advisor, Partnership Wealth Management is committed to providing our clients with financial planning and wealth management services to help them work towards their financial goals. At Partnership Wealth Management, we have a long history of working with the LGBT community. Among the many services we offer are financial planning and estate planning strategies for gay and lesbian couples. Financial planning is an important part of preparing for the future; contact us today to get started: www.partnershipwm.com.

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Woody Derricks, CFP®
Woody Derricks, CFP®
Throughout my nearly 20 years as a Financial Advisor, I have seen some of the best and worst markets in our history. That experience allows me to approach my clients with the knowledge of how the markets fit into their greater financial picture. At Partnership Wealth Management we help everyday people who have accumulated wealth make sense of what they have and work with them to maximize their financial opportunities in a relaxed, comfortable, and professional environment. While we help people from all walks of life, many of our clients are same-sex couples searching for a knowledgeable, LGBT-friendly financial advisor to help them with their unique financial planning needs. I am a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professional and have the Accredited Domestic Partnership Advisor(sm) designation. As a Registered Investment Advisor, we are not tied to any company’s investment products allowing us to provide unbiased advice by offering a wide array of investments and other products to our clients. Since 2001, I have been writing articles on financial planning for several regional newspapers and have been a guest speaker on LGBT financial issues for various local and national organizations. Additionally, I have conducted financial planning workshops for large corporations and government agencies. Non-Profit Work I believe that it is important to give back to the community and currently serve as the treasurer for FreeState Justice and as a co-founder/president of Paws for a Cause. I’m a current member of several LBGT, environmental, and local community groups. Personal My wife, Heidi and I enjoy camping, hiking, and traveling with our daughter, Elise, and our dogs, Fenway & Roxy. Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards Inc. owns the certification marks CFP®, CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ and federally registered CFP (with flame design) in the U.S., which it awards to individuals who successfully complete CFP Board’s initial and ongoing certification requirements.

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