Could You Be Putting Your Money at Risk Online?

by Jean Chatzky
Photograph: iStock

You should also leave your date of birth and hometown off your Facebook page. Why? Pretexting. Here’s how it works: Someone uses the information they’ve gotten about you online—your dog’s name, where you made your last few purchases—to call your bank and pretend to be you. A pretexter may claim he lost his checkbook and needs information about his own account, and emerge with your account numbers, information in your credit report, even your Social Security number.

To protect your personal information, configure your own privacy settings. (Even if you’ve done this once, check again to make sure your preferences are still set.) Go to the privacy settings page (click on “account” in the toolbar, then “privacy settings” in the drop-down menu). You’ll be able to decide what to make available to specific people, such as “friends,” “friends of friends” and “everyone,” as well as list people with whom you want to block communication.

Don’t store your credit card numbers online

It’s tempting to allow sites to store your credit card data or your passwords. But don’t take the risk, says Hallam-Baker: “You want to be the one who is in control of that information.” Otherwise it’s easy for someone to log right in to your account, particularly if you have a shared computer. Believe it or not, one third of identity theft is perpetrated by friends or family members.

Yes, pay your bills online and do your banking online. It’s safer

As I’ve said in this space before, I am a fan of banking online and making automatic payments. Individuals who bank online look at their financial information four times more often than those who bank the old-fashioned way; just looking can alert you to a breach, according to Javelin Strategies. Indeed, Hallam-Baker notes that the risk of fraud through online banking is greater if you don’t use it than if you do, and the losses are less: $551, on average, for people who bank online compared with $4,500 for paper-and-mail bankers.

In addition, Hallam-Baker has recently noticed a disturbing increase in criminals enabling the online banking feature of old accounts. “You may have an account you opened 20 years ago for which you never used the online banking feature,” he says. “And when you use a check in a store, a clerk could look at the account number on the check, go to the bank’s site, enable online banking, and now they can act just like they are the customer.”

Wipe your old hard drive clean

Your hard drive is a “twenty-first-century treasure chest for identity thieves and information pirates,” according to the FTC. When you ditch your laptop or desktop, remember that computers hold your personal information (passwords, account numbers, tax returns), and it is all still in there. Even if you’ve deleted a file, bits of the information can be retrieved with a data recovery program. So before you dump the machine, use software to wipe that hard drive clean. Buy a boxed version such as WipeDrive or download a free one from PCWorld.
Once your computer is clean, consider donating it to a local organization or recycling it according to EPA specifications. Or take a screwdriver, open your computer, and destroy the hard drive with power tools. (For the how-to, go to Popular Mechanics.)

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