One morning I tried to log into my eBay account but couldn’t. I contacted eBay and once I was able to get in, what I saw was over $1,000 in purchases. My heart dropped, my cheeks flushed, my chest tightened and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. Anyone who has had their account compromised knows this feeling well.
What followed was a two day fast-course on protecting my identity online. Here is what I learned:
1. Change Passwords Frequently
I heard someone on NPR say that “passwords are like underwear. Change them frequently and don’t share them with anyone.” Try to change passwords every 30 to 60 days.
2. Make Passwords Difficult to Guess
You should have a combination of letters and numbers such as M7*dr36!aLd. Is it a pain to have more complicated passwords? Absolutely, but it is worth it to protect my identity.
3. Use A Different Password for Each Account
If thieves can hack into one account, they can hack into other accounts with the same password.
4. Use One Credit Card Solely For Online Purchases
If you use credit cards, have one that you use solely for online purchases and one that you use solely for all other purchases. If one credit card account is taken over — say the one you do NOT use for online purchases and suddenly online purchases begin showing up — the credit card company is much more likely to catch the theft because the charges will be outside your normal purchasing pattern.
5. Link Your Debit Card to a Special Bank Account
If you have an account only for debit card use and the card is compromised, the thieves will not be able to clean out your regular checking account that is used to pay bills. Worse case scenario they would only clean out the checking account specifically used for the debit card.
6. Link Your PayPal Account to a Special Account
Only use your designated credit card for on-line purchases or your designated bank account for your debit card. Do not use your regular credit card or checking account in case the account is compromised.
7. Order Your Free Credit Report Every Four Months
You can go to AnnualCreditReport.com and get your credit report for free from each of the three credit reporting agencies (Experian, TransUnion and Equifax) once a year. Order one every four months. For instance, one from Experian in January, one from TransUnion in May and one from Equifax in September.
8. Put a Fraud Alert on Your Credit Report If You Think Your Account Was Compromised
If you call one of the credit reporting agencies to authorize a fraud alert, they will call the other two agencies and convey the information for you. (These are the numbers for the fraud departments: EQUIFAX: 800-525-6285, EXPERIAN: 888-397-3742, TRANSUNION: 800-680-7289.)
9. Put a Security Freeze on Your Credit Report
This is a radical step, but it will completely protect your identity. When you use a security freeze, you essentially lock down your credit. If you want to open a line of credit, you must first unfreeze your accounts. However, if your information is stolen and the thief tries to open up an account, they will be thwarted.
You must pay $10 to the credit reporting agency to freeze your credit. They will give you a special number as confirmation. Keep this number in a very safe place as you need it to unlock your credit.
10. Make Sure to Have a Firewall, Virus Scan, Spy Ware and Ad Ware Software
Many of these programs can be downloaded for free and offer the initial step of protection.
Identity theft on the Internet is a growing business and the damage can be done quickly. In less than 24 hours, someone used my account to purchase 3 cell phones at a cost of $1000. Imagine if I hadn’t caught it so quickly. Luckily eBay was wonderful and took care of the sales and the $1000.
I hope that my bad experience can help you protect yourself online.
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photo by Ed Yourdon