July 2015: If it wasn’t clear before the IRS data breach, it is now — no one is going to protect your data in the cybersecurity Wild West except you. Hackers aren’t just taking credit card numbers anymore. They’re taking tax returns, which contain pretty much all of your identifying data, including your kids’ Social Security Numbers and your bank account number if you get refund checks by direct deposit.
But don’t throw up your hands and surrender — channel your inner cowboy! Here’s how:
The trick is to be more alert than the cowboys next to you. You don’t want to be the straggler who’s easy to ambush. So rustle up a couple of hours and take these steps to protect your share of the ranch.
Step 1: Lock down your credit reports.
You can stop someone from opening a new account with your personal information by placing a freeze on your credit reports. Most creditors require a credit report to open an account so if bad guys can’t get your report, they won’t open the new account. You can unfreeze your reports whenever you want, like if you’re applying for a new credit card or loan. The idea here is to close the barn door before your assets escape, not after! Contact all three of the credit reporting companies: Equifax (1-800-349-9960), Experian (1-888-397-3742) and TransUnion (1-888-909-8872). Full details here.
Step 2: Open a new bank account if you gave your bank account number to the feds.
It’s gosh-darn inconvenient to open a new account but it’s not as inconvenient as waking up one day to an empty account. Close the old account, keep the new account number to yourself and have any tax refunds delivered by Pony Express (or USPS), not electronically. And if you think your bank account number is safe because you filed your tax returns the analog way, think again. The IRS has keyed your information into the system.
Step 3: Monitor your family’s credit reports.
Regularly request a credit report for every family member — even the young ‘uns. Do this a minimum of three times a year. Not only can bandits open credit cards in your name (and your kids’ names), they potentially have enough information from your tax returns to buy a house! You can get one free report per year from each of the three reporting agencies so if you time it right, that’s a free report every four months. Use the official website, AnnualCreditReport.com, or there may be hidden charges and other stuff you don’t want.
Step 4: Keep an eye on your account balances, especially your checking account.
Check on your bank accounts as if they were your leather pouches filled with gold. Because they are.
Step 5: Round up your passwords once and for all.
Weak passwords are easy pickin’s. Strong passwords that you change regularly are like loaded six-shooters. Don’t worry about keeping track of everything. Use a password manager so you only have to remember one password that opens your password vault. And use two-factor authentication and biometrics whenever possible.
What can happen if you fall asleep on the job? Just ask the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) with its decades-old computer systems. If you discover a thief is using your information, identitytheft.gov tells you how to make things right.
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