How to help protect against digital theft

Recent news headlines about cybercrime and identity theft can be alarming, especially as these crimes seem to grow more numerous and affect more people. According to Javelin Strategy and Research, at least 15.4 million Americans were the victim of cybercrime or identity theft of some kind in 2016, resulting in approximately $16 billion in losses and damages.

These crimes often rely on deception, or simply ignorance, to fool users into giving up their private information or granting access to a bank account, for example. Fortunately, there are a few reliable ways to help protect against what's becoming a bigger threat every year.

"Identity theft relies on deception."

The primary conduit for many instances of identity theft and fraud continues to be malicious computer software, sometimes referred to as a virus or, increasingly, ransomware. Computer users can come into contact with these programs by opening an email attachment or simply clicking a link to a website, two common habits that can seem harmless until it's too late. The malicious programs might spy on users to nab valuable personal data, or in the case of ransomware, lock down a device and demand payment before erasing important digital files.

Besides being aware of how computer viruses and ransomware can spread, users can take additional steps to add layers of protection. The New York Times reported that security experts still recommend antivirus software for most PC users. This software may require purchase or subscription, but is often available as a free, limited-feature version, too. The Times suggested applications like Avast, AVG, Bitdefender, Sophos or ZoneAlarm for Microsoft Windows users.

However, Microsoft and Apple, the two major operating system developers, are constantly releasing automatic updates to keep users protected against most cyber threats. No matter what kind of computer you use, make sure you know how to perform security updates - in most cases, these are performed automatically. Note that computers more than several years old may no longer be covered by these updates.

Credit and identity monitoring

Not all instances of cybercrime and fraud involve taking over someone's computer through malicious code. Personal data could be leaked into the world through no fault of your own. To protect against that risk, it's possible to sign up for credit or identity monitoring services. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau explained that these companies will use a number of strategies to alert customers if their credit card or Social Security number may have been used by an unauthorized person.

Of course, these services can incur varying costs, and it's not always clear whether signing up is worthwhile. The CFPB also noted that there are ways to gain this protection for little or no cost.

  • If you have proof that you are a victim of identity theft, you can enable a freeze on your credit report that will prevent anyone from opening a new credit account in your name for a period of time.
  • If you have reason to believe you might have been a victim of fraud but not solid evidence, you can instead put a fraud alert on your credit account, which will warn lenders of your concern before they can approve a line of credit.

Many credit card companies and banks also offer some level of protection for their customers, whether it's notifying them of suspicious transactions or conducting some level of identity monitoring themselves. Look into your credit card agreement or bank account information to learn more about these measures.

Cybercrime and identity theft doesn't happen to everyone, but it still pays to be prepared. Take these steps today to gain a better sense of financial security.

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