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How to Prevent Online Identity Theft

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Tips to protect yourself from identity theft when shopping online.

Is someone online pretending to be you when shopping or banking? Have your online identity and passwords been posted on the dark web for sale?

Unfortunately, the answer is, “quite possibly.”

In 2018, the Federal Trade Commission received close to three million reports of online identity theft and fraud, with over 167,000 Americans indicating that a fraudulent credit card was opened with their information. More than five percent of all consumers have suffered from identity fraud, and over one million children were ID theft victims that year. Fraud losses hit $16.9 billion in 2019, a 13% increase from the previous year.

For scammers and other criminals, online identity theft and fraud are big business. Your personal information is worth something to criminals.

Here are some ways to protect yourself.

Preventing Identity Theft

First, think carefully about where your information appears. Double-check that shopping sites are legitimate. If in doubt, do an online search with the site’s URL and the word “scam.” Make sure any site that requests credit card or banking info is secure by looking for the lock symbol in the URL. Unless you trust the site and plan to use it again, don’t allow it to store your credit card info.

Question whether a site or service provider really needs certain information, such as your Social Security number. Ask why they want the info, and don’t share critical information if you don’t like the answer.

Change your passwords regularly, and don’t use the same password on multiple sites. Over 2.5 million people use the password 123456, and 360,000 use “password” as their password. That makes it easy for thieves. There are many password managers that make it easier to track and use your passwords.

Keeping an Eye on Things

If you’re not already doing so, check your credit reports regularly to look for new accounts. You can receive a credit report from each of the three credit bureaus (TransUnion, Experian, Equifax) for free once per year. The best practice is to request a free credit report from one of the three every four months. All three bureaus offer credit monitoring and other services for a fee, but you don’t have to buy them to receive your free credit report.

Second, check if your bank, credit union or credit card issuer offers free credit monitoring or credit alerts. If so, sign up. You can also get free alerts from one of the free financial management services, such as Mint. Most of those services will alert you if someone attempts to open a credit card or account in your name.

Finally, check your credit card and bank/credit union accounts and statements frequently to spot any unusual or unexplained activity. If you don’t recognize a charge, contact the institution right away. And don’t ignore emails from Amazon or other online shopping sites that list recent orders.

Make Online Identify Theft Difficult

Taking these five proactive steps can also safeguard your finances.

  1. Place a fraud alert or credit freeze on your credit file so no one can open an account without your knowledge. Both are free but must be renewed periodically. The three credit bureau sites have information.
  2. Never transmit sensitive financial or other information on a public wi-fi network, such as in a coffee shop. Don’t use a public computer to transmit sensitive information.
  3. Use a virtual, one-time credit card if your bank, credit union or credit card issuer offers it, so a thief can’t steal and reuse your credit card info.
  4. When selling or trashing a computer, tablet or phone, make sure all of your personal information is wiped clean. If you’re trashing a device, physically destroy the drive/memory, if possible.
  5. Think twice before downloading an app to your electronic device, especially if it’s from an unfamiliar company.

Finally, think about identity theft insurance. Insurance is an inexpensive add-on to many existing policies. Check with your insurance broker or agent to see if you already have identity theft coverage or can add it inexpensively.

Many consumers make it too easy for thieves to steal their identities. Don’t be one of them.


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