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After seeing so many people I know get scammed online, sometimes even without any knowledge, I wanted to sit down and put together some tips for keeping your identity safe online. Between social media, online shopping, and everyday Internet usage, there are a few areas that people leave themselves vulnerable to online predators. I hope you will find my tips helpful. Next time you see a friend or family member doing something on this list, feel free to send this article their way. I find that most people are not aware that their online behavior is risky. Most people get caught in innocent fun and then have to suffer the consequences of identity theft later on.
Chances are, you spend a significant amount of time online. You check in with your family and friends on social media. You check your email. You probably even use the Internet for shopping, online banking, booking travel reservations, and searching for local places to find something for dinner. The Internet has streamlined our daily living and provided us with unlimited tools to make our lives easier, more connected, and less limited. But there are also things on the Internet to be aware of in order to protect your identity. Just like in real life, there are people online who are looking for ways to find out your information, steal your credit card info, and sell private date to advertisers. You don’t have to be scared, but you should be smart about the things you do online. Here are a few ways to protect your identity online while you enjoy all of the fun things.
DO NOT Give 3rd Party Websites Access to your Facebook Account:
Of all the networks available out there, Facebook definitely ranks at the top for personal information. You are required to use your real, legal name. You likely have also stored your birthday, phone number, where you live, where you work, places you’ve lived and worked in the past, who the members in your family are, and much more. They know where you like to eat, where you hang out with your friends, and what you like. I’m sure by now you’ve seen the copy and paste scam that includes some fake legal jargon letting Facebook know they don’t own any of your content and all of that. But I have news for you, when you choose to use Facebook, you are agreeing to THEIR Terms & Conditions.
Facebook is free…. but at what cost? Well, if you aren’t buying the product, then you ARE the product. That’s right. Facebook is worth billions because of the private information they’ve collected on their users. Ever wonder why you keep seeing ads in your news feed for things you’ve browsed online? Facebook is very much connected to search engines and other advertising services that allow you to be targeted so precisely that you almost can’t help yourself when you go ahead and make that purchase that keeps showing up over and over again.
Now, don’t get me wrong, Facebook is not the big, bad social network of the Internet. It’s actually an amazing tool that helps me keep in touch with family and friends all over the world. I love watching people live their dreams, build their families, travel, achieve goals, and just live everyday life in a way that wouldn’t be possible for me without social media. But as Facebook users, it’s our responsibility to understand how things work. And that brings me to my point here. As you know, the Internet is all connected. Each day, developers are coming up with ways to make it more user friendly. One of the ways people do this is by eliminating the need to remember so many passwords. Trust me, I’m guilty of forgetting my password now and then, and I appreciate this….most of the time. You may have noticed that some websites allow you to login via Facebook. For major sites, like Pinterest, for example, this is totally fine. But for random, 3rd party sites that have no significance, giving them full access to your account is a HUGE mistake and I see people do it every day without really even realizing.
Those silly quizzes that ask you to Log in with Facebook to find answers to things like What Princess Are You? or What Did You Do in a Past Life? or How You Will Look in 40 Years? These quiz sites are the biggest culprits of Facebook account security breeches. People love to take them because they are fun and you see all your friends posting them in your news feed. They are quick little quizzes that you can take while you’re avoiding something you should probably be doing instead. And clicking that “Log in with Facebook” button takes only a second before you can find the answers to life’s least important questions. Don’t fall for it!
Imagine going to a carnival and finding one of those Guess Your Age guys. You step up to see what he has to say and he asks if he can first take a peek inside your wallet, at your driver’s license, and take some pictures so he can share with his friends. Would you stick around for that? No way, right?! So don’t do it online. Not for some stupid quiz. It’s just not worth it.
What to Do:
Enjoy the quizzes that do not require you to log in with Facebook. And, if you’ve already done a few of the sketchy ones, go into your Facebook settings and delete those third party apps from your permissions so they no longer have access to your Facebook account. It’s easy to do. Just go to your Account Settings page on your account. Select Apps from the column on the left. Click the X next to anything that you don’t absolutely use and anything you don’t recognize to revoke their access.
Do Not Post Sensitive Information on Social Media:
You love telling your friends what you’re up to. I do, too. But more often than not, sometimes the ways you share these things can be red flags for people looking to take advantage of you and your family. This can be total strangers or even, more creepily, people that you actually know in real life! How well do you really know your Facebook friends? Would you invite each of them over for dinner, or let them babysit your kids? If you’re like most people you have a few acquaintances on your friend’s list that you don’t know all that well. Maybe a co-worker from 5 years ago or perhaps a friend of a friend? You never truly know these people well enough to trust them with your valuables or your family, and while they may be very nice people, don’t let your guard down just because it’s online.
In order to protect yourself and your family, there are a few things you should avoid posting:
Specific dates and times when you will be out of town on vacation (many home break-ins occur because you are letting people know when they should stop by. Many times, these are done by people who know you via social media.)
Photos of your home address (street signs, house numbers, etc.). This is especially true if you have children, have built up a large social media following, or are particularly successful. People will show up at your house uninvited if you give them enough information and they aren’t all coming over for coffee.
License plates: Many people post photos of their cards, whether it’s the main focus or parked in the driveway in the background of your children playing. There are ways people can use your license plate info to track you down. If you do post car photos, be sure to blur that part out.
Photos and names of your children’s’ school. We all love to post photos of our kids. But don’t tell creepy people where they can find them. They already have their photo and their name. It would take little effort for something to go terribly wrong.
Personal identification documents: Showing off your new Driver’s License photo? Be sure to cover up everything else! New Passport? Definitely blur out the barcode and all the other personal information. I’ve even seen people post photos where a debit or credit card is visible in the photo and with a little zooming in, the entire number is totally legible. First pay check with your new company? Hide the accounting and routing number!
Other items you may not think twice about: prescription medication bottles (complete with your doctor’s info) or Ultrasound photos (with your OB/GYN practice’s name), a map of where you go on your daily run, “Checking In” at your own home….or checking in to places or events where you’ll be away from home for an extended part of the day.
What to Do:
None of these things are particularly harmful in general. Most people you know are good people, like you and me. But there is always that chance that there is one person who could see this information and use it in ways that would be harmful to you and your family. In the wrong hands, this kind of information gives them a key that they should never have. So instead of putting yourself and your family at risk, just don’t post any of these things. If you want to post, be safe about it and blur out the sensitive info. If you’ve already posted something like this, delete it. There’s a chance it could be too late because anytime you post online gives other people a chance to save that forever. But it’s at least better than nothing.
Double Check your Emails Before You Log into a Scam Site:
This one is pretty obvious and most people understand how this works. You get an email from some Nigerian Prince letting you know you’ve inherited millions and they just need you to respond with your bank info and you’ll be dripping in diamonds. You know by now that this is a scam. Another example of obvious email scams: You get an email congratulating you on some dream vacation you’ve won that you never signed up for. Most people know this is a scam.
But, there are some very tricky “phishing” schemes out there that you may not see coming if you aren’t too vigilant. Those are the ones that LOOK and FEEL like credible places that you DO know and trust like Amazon, PayPal, Netflix, even Facebook. The emails include the logo of the company they are claiming to be and even the same brand colors and symbols throughout the email.
They are often writing to alert you to something that needs to be updated with your account. Perhaps it’s saying you need to log in to renew your credit card, or confirm a change, or something along those lines. It’s usually just an everyday type of situation so you don’t think twice when you click that log in button and continue to your account to take care of the minor issue. Except, you’re not logging into Amazon, Paypal, Netflix, or Facebook. You are logging in with your actual account information to a cloned scam site that someone has built to look JUST like the real ones. They have captured your login credentials and now they have full access to your account and all that comes with it (name, phone, address, billing, bank info, etc.). Once you do this, you will likely become the victim of identity theft and, at some point, experience the misfortune of fraudulent charges.
What to Do:
Change your password IMMEDIATELY. Always check the “senders” actual email address, not just the name. Many times the sender’s name will look just like the real thing. The email will even be very similar. But it will be slightly off. Like “.co” at the end instead of “.com,” or something added on to make it different. You can usually identify these fake emails just by looking at them, but to be extra safe, DO NOT CLICK THE LINK in the email. Open up a new tab in your browser and go directly to the site mentioned. If there is really an issue with your account, it will show up when you log in. But do not log in to any account with a link in an email that could take you to a cloned, fake site. If you are extra concerned, you can always call the company directly. Google the phone number, don’t trust a number listed in a scam email, either. Let them know what the email says and they can help you determine if it is authentic or a scam. Many of these places also have a way for you to forward the scam emails to their fraud department so they can try and stop the people from scamming more customers.
Know What You are Putting Out There and Take Responsibility for It:
As time goes on, the Internet grows and changes to adapt to modern day living. I imagine what you used the Internet for 10 years ago has greatly changed between then and now. I remember when MySpace was in it’s prime. I actually miss the classic MySpace a little bit. For me, that was my first introduction to social media. For you, perhaps back then you’ve participated in online forums and discussions. And all the while doing so without a care in the world that anyone important (your current boss, your future spouse, your kids, etc.) would ever read any of it. Chances are, you probably got bored of whatever it was and slowly just quit using it at all. There’s a chance it may still be out there floating around. I encourage you to check in with your online presence once or twice a year to see what others see. Yes, this means you need to Google yourself. Did you uncover old accounts that need closing? Photos that you don’t want your boss to see? Personal info that you didn’t realize would become public? Don’t worry. It happens to everyone. But if you are aware of the issue, then you can start taking steps to fix it.
What to Do:
Contact the appropriate sources to get the old content removed. Be aware that what you put on the Internet is, for the most part, available to the public. This includes non-direct items like comments on a news article. So be aware of what you post online before you post it, and if there’s something out there that you don’t like, try to get it removed if at all possible. It’s important to clean up your online reputation just like it’s important to clean your room.
Don’t Put All Your Eggs in One Basket:
You’ve heard this saying many times and it rings true online as well, specifically with emails. Some people have 37 email addresses and others have only one. Now I’m not here to tell you what is right for you, but I am here to encourage you to at the very least, have a couple and here’s why: If you use one email for everything (your social media, your banking, your online shopping), you are giving a potential hacker access to EVERYTHING all at once. However, if you use one email for personal things, like emailing your Aunt Barbara cute photos of your kids, online banking, paying your cell phone bill, booking airfare, and ordering all the cute things from Etsy, you can keep all of that information safe in its own account. When you need to provide an email address for less personal things: survey results, newsletter signups, etc. you can use your second address. The less personal online things are more likely to involve third party sites that may or may not be trusted, so keeping those things separate from the ones that are important to you will always be helpful.
Secondly, passwords. It’s hard to remember passwords sometimes….as I mentioned before, I get it! But if you use only one password for everything you do, you are basically going to the parade and throwing out copies of your house key to every passerby on the Internet. Use a different password for the important things (online banking, email, etc.) and another password for the things that aren’t as important. Similarly, be sure that the password to your main email address is different from the password to your Facebook account, your online banking, and anything else that holds personal information (like a stored credit card). If you get hacked, you can reset your password. But if you use the same one for everything, chances are you will be locked out of everything and dealing with a huge nightmare.
Be careful about those silly online surveys people copy and paste on Facebook. You know, the one where you get your Super Hero Name by combining the name of your first pet, your mother’s maiden name, and the first street you lived on. These may seem fun, but coincidentally they also provide the world with the likely answers to most of your account security questions making it very easy for anyone who has your name and birth date (usually publicly shared on Facebook) to get into your account they do not have the password for. And be sure to come up with a password that is not so obvious. We know you love your pets and your kids but they will be the first guessed. Think of something that no one could guess, even if they know you.
What to Do:
Use multiple emails and passwords to protect each of your accounts and make it more difficult for someone to lock you out of everything. Use passwords that are not obvious. Keep your security question answers private.
Do Not Give Your Credit/Debit Information to Untrusted Sites:
Shopping online is fun, right? I mean, Amazon Prime and I are BFFs. There are so many sites to shop from. Like many of you, I also enjoy supporting small businesses as well. I will occasionally make online purchases from sites I’m not too familiar with. So far, so good, but you just never know. I’ve heard many stories of friends finding fraud charges a few months after shopping on those “too-good-to-be-true super-cheap-from-China” websites. It’s difficult to experience fraud charges because you are never prepared for them. Some banks will reverse the charges right away while others have a long and drawn out process. Meanwhile, you need to eat, pay your bills, and live your life. Having your account frozen causes much stress and even when you get things taken care of, you have to wait for your new cards to arrive in the mail and then go and reset the information for all of your automatic bill payment accounts you’ve set up for convenience. It’s a mess no matter how you look at it.
What to Do:
If you find yourself shopping on a website that may not be too familiar, be sure to check if it has any security certificates (the “http” at the top should change to “https” in the site’s URL) before you enter any personal information. If you still aren’t sure if the site is safe, but you do wish to make a purchase, do not use your main credit or debit card. Instead, pick up a prepaid Visa gift card from your local Walgreens, Target, wherever and use that instead. You can preload the card with any amount of money you choose and if, for some reason, the site ends up not being safe, they will not have access to all the money in your bank account.
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I hope you found these tips helpful and I hope you are able to enjoy all the best that the Internet offers while still finding ways to keep yourself and your family safe online. The Internet doesn’t have to be a bad place. You get to control what you put out there so be smart about it and you’ll be safe!