The internet has made our lives easier in so many ways, but it has also made life more complicated and potentially more risky. Every time we log into social media, make a purchase online, or enter our personal information on a website to create an account, we’re putting our sensitive personal details at risk. In the worst case scenario, a thief or hacker with the right set of information can even steal your identity with disastrous results.
Of course, identity theft and fraud was around long before the world wide web. Hackers could always steal your mail or write down your credit card numbers on the sly, which they often did.
But, technology has opened the door to new types of fraud, some of which come with enormous financial costs. In fact, a 2020 study form Javelin Research showed that costs involved in identity fraud reached $16.9 billion (USD) in 2019. Further, one of the most common types of fraud perpetrated right now is account takeover fraud, which takes place when someone gets into your financial accounts so they can steal your money and shut you out.
Very often, recovering from takeover of your accounts can leave you spending thousands of dollars or more and hours of your time.
7 Important Ways to Protect Yourself Online
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to protect yourself and your assets as you use the world wide web. If you shop online, invest online, or bank online especially, here are some of the most important steps you can take to protect yourself.
Use a Password Manager
We all know you shouldn’t use simple passwords that are easy to guess. To be clear, MARY123 is a poor password for any account you have, but that’s especially true if you’re married to a woman with that name.
To protect yourself online, you should create complicated passwords that use a range of unrelated letters, numbers, and symbols. If you don’t like the idea of keeping track of them, you can also use a password manager like LastPass or DashLane. Both will create complicated, secure passwords for your important accounts, and they each offer a browser extension that lets you access your accounts online with one single “master” password.
Some password managers offer a free version, but even paid versions can be cheap — think $2 to $4 per month. However, the protection they provide can be absolutely priceless.
Download Anti-Virus Software
Antivirus software like Norton 360 or McAfee Total Protection can also help protect your personal information and your account details whenever you shop online. Best of all, all you have to do for this protection is purchase the software and download it onto your computer.
While there are many other benefits, antivirus software can prevent a situation where your computer picks up malware or spyware. The best software programs will even warn you if a site you visit or a download you’re attempting seems phishy.
Monitor Your Credit Reports
Your credit reports are the first place you’ll likely notice fraud if someone impersonates you and begins opening accounts in your name. Fortunately, you can monitor all three of your credit reports for free using the website AnnualCreditReport.com.
Where this website once only let you look at each of your credit reports from Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion once per year, they have updated their terms due to COVID-19. From now until April of 2021, you can check your reports weekly without any cost.
Watch Out for Phishing Emails
Phishing emails can look like they come from a company you know, like a bank. They may even have the company logo on them, and they often use official terms and wording in order to convince you they’re legitimate.
To protect yourself from phishing emails, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) suggests protecting your computer with security software first and foremost. Also refrain from clicking on anything in an email that you don’t fully trust. If a company is requesting you log in to your account or provide them with information, skip the email and call them directly.
Use Multi-Factor Authentication When You Can
Another tip from the FTC that can help you prevent fraud is taking advantage of multi-factor authentication when it’s available. For example, some accounts you have may ask you to set up a second factor for when you log in, such as a code sent through a text message or an email.
While multi-factor authentication can seem like a pain since it adds another step when you use your accounts, this step is incredibly impactful when it comes to preventing fraud. A hacker may be able to get your account login details, for example, but they are less likely to intercept a security code sent to your cell phone.
Pay for a VPN
In addition to the other steps we have listed, you may also want to splurge for a Virtual Private Network, or VPN. Once you download one, the VPN will give you privacy and anonymity since it creates a private network using any wifi connection. The VPN then hides your online identity so your online actions are not traceable by anyone, including hackers and thieves.
Keep in mind that you may not need to buy a VPN separately, although you can for as little as $25 per year in some cases. Many antivirus software programs include VPN access for free, as do some identity theft protection programs.
Sign Up for Identity Theft Protection
Worried about the time involved in keeping your accounts safe? In that case, it may make sense to pay for third party help. Identity theft protection companies like LifeLock, Identity Guard, and ID Watchdog will oversee all your accounts for you, and they’ll even monitor the dark web and public records to check for your information. Better yet, some identity theft protection services include features you may pay for separately otherwise, like a VPN or credit monitoring.
The best part about most identity theft protection services is that, if you’re a victim of fraud, you can use the identity theft insurance coverage that comes with your plan, which is often worth up to $1 million dollars.
Some plans include even more coverage. As an example, the top ID theft plan from ID Watchdog — ID Watchdog Platinum — includes up to $1 million in identity theft protection insurance to cover legal fees and financial losses and up to $500,000 in additional coverage for losses from a 401(k) plan or Health Savings Account (HSA).