Identity theft is real. Nearly 17 million people in the U.S., or, 6.6 percent of consumers, were victims of identity theft or fraud in 2017, resulting in $16.8 billion in losses, according to the 2018 Identity Fraud Study by Javelin Strategy & Research. Not surprisingly, data breaches are among the most common causes of identity theft; about 31.7 percent of those affected by data breaches also experience identity theft.

Let’s face it: your digital DNA is out there in cyberspace and you can’t reel it back in. What is your digital DNA, exactly? It’s an online trail of your habits and preferences, your behavior and personal information, all of which combine to make your digital identity unique to you, much in the same way that your actual DNA is unique to you.

You likely have email and a smartphone, you use the internet, stream media and shop online. You may even do some or all of your bill paying and banking online. That can give smart criminals a number of different ways to track and hack your information. Once they have it, they may be able to apply for credit cards and loans, withdraw money from your checking account, use your health insurance to pay for their own doctor visits, even sell your information to the highest bidder on the dark web.

Smart Steps

What can you do to help protect yourself from identity theft? You can’t always prevent it, but you can take many steps to decrease your likelihood of becoming a victim.

  • Change your passwords: When it comes to your passwords, change is essential. Since we do so much online, it’s important to have a variety of secure passwords, so make sure you’re swapping them out regularly. More importantly, don’t use the same password for everything you do online — that can make you an easier target for hackers. You can also take advantage of two-step verification, also called two-factor authentication, when it’s offered. It’s another layer of security that a thief must go through to steal your information. Can’t remember 30 different passwords? That’s where a digital password manager may come in handy. These kinds of tools offer a reliable way to keep all your passwords encrypted and in one spot.
  • Don’t get personal: Avoid giving out personal information, either online or over the phone. And this goes double for giving out your Social Security number. Of course, if you’re buying a house or a car, for instance, you will need to share, but make sure to verify that the company is who they claim to be before doing so.
  • Don’t overshare: Oversharing on websites like Facebook and Twitter can get people into trouble, so make sure you secure your accounts before venturing into the fray. Given how many details you’re asked to share just to create a profile – where you’re from, where you went to school, where you live, your relationship status – it’s relatively easy for an online criminal to extract your information, lift your password, and pretend to be you. Moreover, think twice before letting everyone know you’re in Bali and not at home in Arizona. 
  • Monitor your bank accounts and credit: This seems obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many people don’t keep tabs on their bank account activity. Thanks to the Internet, you can do it from home or work, any time of day or night. Just be sure that the password you use to log in to your bank’s website is tough to crack. You should also take advantage of a free credit report to check for suspicious activity on your cards. You can order credit reports online, but make sure to space them out throughout the year for better coverage.

Prevent, Protect and Resolve

If you’re already taking advantage of all these preventive measures, that’s great. But being a responsible cyber-citizen doesn’t make your digital DNA invulnerable. A determined hacker may be able to find a way in. If that happens, what can you do if someone commits fraud in your name, steals money from your checking account or hijacks your credit card number for an online shopping spree?

It might be worth your money and peace of mind to work with a service that pays attention to what’s happening across all your different accounts. An identity theft protection service is there to help protect your digital DNA from hackers and poachers. A quality service that offers identity verification alerts and credit balance alerts or sends you monthly activity summaries from the three credit agencies may be able to help you identify or resolve problems that arise as a result. It can be beneficial to have a backup when you most need it.

It’s All About Strategy

While it can be difficult to prevent identity theft before it happens, being as proactive as possible and utilizing a trusted partner in protection may help you spot a problem and fix it before it snowballs into a bigger financial deal.

Legal Disclaimer: This site is for educational purposes and is not a substitute for professional advice. The material on this site is not intended to provide legal, investment, or financial advice and does not indicate the availability of any Discover product or service. It does not guarantee that Discover offers or endorses a product or service. For specific advice about your unique circumstances, you may wish to consult a qualified professional.