Technology

5 Keys to Keeping Your Data Secure

Protect yourself from would-be identity thieves.

Chances are, you may have been swindled at some point in your life, or you know someone who has. Nearly half of consumers surveyed recently by Stanford University's Center on Longevity and the Finra Investor Education Foundation reported being a victim of financial fraud in the previous year—a far higher tally than earlier surveys indicated. No socioeconomic or demographic group is immune. "Men and women, college students and retirees, rich and poor—all are potential targets," the report's authors found. Nearly 40% of victims never told anyone about the fraud.

Estimates are problematic, but Americans are thought to lose some $50 billion a year to financial scams. And there are indirect costs: bounced checks, late fees, trouble meeting monthly expenses and even bankruptcy. So it's not surprising that the emotional cost of fraud is also high, with 50% of victims reporting severe stress and more than one-third citing depression. The toll is compounded for senior victims, who have little time to make up for lost resources. "When elderly people lose their life savings, they lose hope," says Ricky Locklar, an investment fraud investigator at the Alabama Securities Commission. "To me, those crimes are worse than someone robbing the corner drugstore at gunpoint."

Here's how to keep your data secure:

1. Play it safe at the ATM. Cover the keyboard with your hand when you enter your PIN—a camera may be recording your keystrokes, which thieves can later match with your payment-card data.

2. Check bank and credit card accounts. At least once a week, look for suspicious charges. Sign up to receive alerts when your bank account balance falls below a threshold you specify, say, or when a charge higher than a certain amount goes through on your card.

3. Head off ID thieves. Go to www.annualcreditreport.com to get free yearly reports from each of the three major credit bureaus. Check for accounts you don't recognize and other red flags. Or enroll in a service that monitors your credit reports. If you're worried about a breach, consider placing a freeze on your reports with each bureau. New creditors will be unable to view them, minimizing the chances that thieves will be able to open new credit accounts in your name (see The Equifax Data Breach: What You Should Do).

4. Watch for tax and medical ID theft. Fight tax ID theft by filing your tax return as early as possible. Doing so may block any thieves who want to use your Social Security number to file a return in your name and collect a refund. Signs of medical ID theft include treatments or services you never used appearing on bills or explanations of benefits.

5. Don't fall for phishing expeditions. Be on guard for phone calls or e-mails from fraudsters posing as representatives from your bank, the IRS or other entities. If you're unsure of an e-mail or text message, don't click on links within it, which could install malware on your device or lead to a scam website.

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