Robbing a bank may be difficult, but stealing an identity gets easier every day. Many shortcuts designed to enhance convenience for customers also make hackers' and thieves' jobs easier, as well.
During National Consumer Protection Week, state, federal, and nonprofit organizations behind the initiative are offering tips for protecting consumers, their wallets, and their identities. We're especially vulnerable in our everyday transactions -- whether it's tapping the ATM or logging into the Internet from our favorite coffee shop. Here's how to protect yourself from theft while going about your daily business.
1. Convenient Wifi Hotspots
"Is this a shared computer?" It's a standard question you see when logging into many websites. There's a reason for it: While shared computers and networks offer a valuable resource in public spaces like coffee shops, libraries, and airports, they're inherently less safe than a home or personal network.
Even if the hotspot or computer offers basic encryption, users should err on the side of caution and assume any information can be grabbed. Some tips to stay safe:
Never check account balances or portfolios on a shared network or computer.
Always log out of any accounts when finishing a session.
Don't use the same password across accounts.
2. 'Alerts' from Your Financial Institution
That dreaded phone call at dinnertime? It could be a debt collector, a charity solicitor, or a scammer. That email that looks legitimate with a bank or federal logo? Maybe it's kosher. Maybe it's a phisher.
It's often difficult to tell who's legit and who's not. But here's a clear clue: Anyone who asks you for your Social Security number, account number, or password probably isn't legitimate.
Even at tax time, the IRS won't email, text, or tweet taxpayers for information about their filing, no matter how sophisticated the communication may appear. Banks and other financial institutions will send an email with a link to an encrypted site before prompting a log-in. They won't ask for passwords or account verification within an email. If someone claiming to be a representative calls at home and asks for personal information, such as PIN or password prompts, you should hang up and call the company's toll-free number immediately.
In short: Never follow a link from an email; instead, if the information appears legitimate, go directly to the organization's homepage through a secured browser.
3. Easy Online Checkout
Customers who shop at the same online shops repeatedly often have the option to store a credit card for an easier checkout. On occasion, the retailer may simply store the credit card information without asking, or hide the request in the fine print of the sale.
Storing a credit card number online might be convenient for users, but it's also convenient for hackers. One break-in will not only yield a list of favored beauty products or wish-listed books, but access to financial information.
If a penny saved is a penny earned, those extra moments typing in credit card information at each purchase is time well spent.
4. ATM's Everywhere
Despite the myriad warnings about the dangers lurking near ATM machines, debit card skimming is a fast-growing business for criminals. This week, three men were arrested in Miami in connection with a skimming ring that involved 18 bank branches and more than 400 customers. By placing a skimmer inside the debit card slot, and a camera angled at the PIN keypad, they were able to create duplicate cards and PINs, and empty their victims' accounts.
To avoid being caught in the skimmer's trap, always be hyper-alert when using a cash machine: Be wary of lurkers, check for card slots that appear cracked, crooked, or appear to be thicker than normal, and hold a hand over the keypad when entering a PIN. Use only machines from recognizable banks; independent machines may have been purchased and placed by thieves themselves.
The Bottom Line
Whether entering into a new business relationship or continuing a long-standing one, customers should always be aware of how and where their financial information will be used, how it's transmitted, and whether it and they are at risk for being targeted by ever-increasingly sophisticated thieves.
Photo Credit: Alamy