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By pushing more consumers to do business online, the pandemic has created new opportunities for cybercriminals. A 2020 Experian holiday survey of 1,000 consumers found 24% had suffered fraud or identity theft during the holidays—double the percentage a similar survey found in 2019.
Using your personal information, hackers can apply for credit card accounts, government benefits and loans in your name. Identity theft can damage your credit and inflict harm that takes years to undo. Here's what hackers can do with your personal information and how to keep it safe.
What Hackers Do With Stolen Information
Hackers have been known to commit a variety of crimes using stolen information. These crimes include:
- Using your credit or debit card information for fraudulent purchases
- Applying for credit cards or loans in your name
- Accessing your bank accounts, retirement accounts and other financial accounts
- Filing fraudulent tax returns to get an income tax refund in your name
- Using your health insurance to access medical care
- Changing your billing address so you don't notice the fraud until it's too late
- Filing for government benefits, such as unemployment, under your name
- Renting an apartment or applying for a job in your name
- Commiting crimes and giving your name to the police when they're arrested
- Applying for fraudulent identification such as driver's licenses or passports
- Selling your information to other criminals on the dark web
Hackers may also use your Social Security number (SSN) to create a synthetic ID—a false identity that merges your data with theirs. And identity theft can be particularly damaging for children. Hackers may steal a child's personal information long before the child is old enough to have bank accounts or credit cards and receive bills. Often, the theft isn't discovered until the child is old enough to apply for a credit card or student loan and is denied.
How to Protect Yourself From Hackers
To safeguard your personal data from hackers, make these preventive steps part of your routine.
- Use strong, unique passwords. Choose a different password for every account. If you use the same password over and over, a hacker who breaches one account could access all of them. Consider trying a password manager app, which generates strong passwords and remembers them for you.
- Use two-factor authentication. Protect critical data such as your banking, retirement accounts or health care data with two-factor authentication. After entering your password, you'll receive a code to enter each time you log on.
- Destroy old documents and data. Shred documents containing personal information before disposing of them. Wipe personal data before selling, discarding or donating computers or mobile devices.
- Protect your hardware. Install antivirus software on computers and mobile devices and keep it updated. Enable automatic operating system updates for computers and mobile devices.
- Monitor account statements. Review all bills, statements, letters and other communications from banks, credit card companies, insurance companies, government agencies and health care providers. A withdrawal, charge or service you don't recognize might be the first sign of identity theft.
- Protect your cards. Carry only the payment and identification cards you need. Shield the keypad from prying eyes when typing your PIN into an ATM or point-of-sale device.
- Don't let mail sit in your mailbox. Install a mail slot in your home or garage door to ensure mail is delivered securely.
- Protect your SSN. Keep your Social Security card at home and commit your number to memory.
- Be Wi-Fi wise. Don't input passwords, share sensitive data or perform financial transactions when you're using public Wi-Fi; it can be easily hacked. Keep your home Wi-Fi network password-protected.
- Be wary of emails or texts from unknown sources. Never click on a link in a text or email unless you trust the source. Emails used in phishing scams often contain clues such as misspellings, low-resolution graphics, and email addresses that might differ from the supposed sender's actual address.
- Don't share information by phone. Criminals "spoof" phone numbers to appear as though a legitimate organization—such as the IRS or your bank—is calling. Be leery of anyone who asks you to share or verify account numbers, SSN, driver's license number, credit card number or other personal information over the phone. If you're worried it really is your bank calling, hang up and call the number on the bank's website instead.
- Slow down. When you're stressed or panicked, you'll likely rush past red flags. Criminals count on this. If a call, email or text insists you must act now to avoid some kind of repercussion (such as jail time), be suspicious.
- Limit social media sharing. Social media games and polls that ask for your pet's name, birthplace or favorite band may seem innocent, but these clues can help criminals decipher your passwords.
- Use credit freezes and credit locks. Worried your data has already been stolen? Put a credit freeze or credit lock on your credit reports. These prevent credit checks, so if a criminal tries to apply for a loan or credit card, they won't be able to get it approved. You can lift the credit freeze or credit lock if you're planning to apply for new credit.
The Bottom Line
One way to protect your personal data is to regularly review your credit report for suspicious activity. You can also sign up for free credit monitoring to get alerted when there are unexpected changes in your credit report, which can help you quickly respond to some types of fraud.
Wondering if your information has been sold to criminals? Experian's free, one-time dark web scan checks for your Social Security number, email or phone number. Signing up for Experian's identity theft protection plans can also provide even more peace of mind.