Identity theft is one of the fastest-growing crimes in the U.S., with more than 12 million victims last year alone. Much of the recent increase has been driven by jumps in more severe forms of the crime; for instance, new-account fraud (which occurs when someone uses stolen information to secure a credit card or loan) rose 50 percent last year, with total losses of nearly $10 billion. And guess what? You’re more at risk if you’re a social networker. Users of LinkedIn, Google+, Twitter and Facebook suffer the highest incidence of fraud.
It’s not always obvious why every random piece of data needs to be protected, but you should be vigilant about it anyway. Hackers have become sophisticated at using one bit of information as a wedge to pry loose a lot more. “Safeguarding all your information is critical, as thieves will combine sensitive data with readily available information to create a synthetic identity,” says Eva Velasquez, CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center. Failing to take precautions endangers not only you but also your friends and family. Consider this: If a thief gains access to your contacts, he can easily set up a spoof e-mail address in your name and trick members of your entire network into sharing their personal information. (Yes, this happens.) Here, Velasquez explains how to make your info harder to hack.
- Pay for privacy on Wi-Fi. No matter where you are—a hotel, an airport, a coffee shop—when you log on to public Wi-Fi, hackers can gain access to your computer or phone (even when you enter a password or pay an access fee to get online). If you use public Wi-Fi for anything involving passwords, credit cards or other sensitive information, invest in a virtual private network—subscription software that encrypts Web traffic. (One VPN, PrivateWiFi.com, charges $85 a year.)
- Disable geotagging. This feature on your smartphone, iPad and digital camera attaches information—likewhere you snapped a photo—to the pictures you take. When you e-mail or share a picture, you give away that data. The geotagging on-off switch varies by device; on an iPhone, go to Settings, Privacy, Location Services, and then click off.
- Use a password keeper. This kind of software solves the problem of having to remember a dozen passwords by allowing you to use one master password to access all your accounts. It will also suggest strong passwords that are less likely to be hacked. (Check out 1Password, agilebits.com/onepassword; $18 for the app.)
- Protect your Wi-Fi at home. Your Wi-Fi probably came with a long default password. That password is stored by your Internet provider—which could become a problem if your provider’s security database is breached, in which case any device using your Wi-Fi is at risk. Not sure if you ever set your own password? Change it now. Check your provider’s website for instructions.