By Richard A. White, PhD
The cost of deception is getting too high for individuals and organizations alike. The Internet world is full of fraudulent activity, from romantic deceptions to investment scams, and everything in between. We all try our best to be our true selves, but what if your identity is stolen? Emerging technological advances have more people moving their lives into the digital sphere. This leads to more convenience, but also, more cyber threats. Many individuals do not know how the technology they are using actually works, and that leaves them vulnerable to cybercrime.
Fraud online causes a breach in trust and compromised finances. Not only is money taken, but credit destroyed, identities stolen, and your personal data left at risk. Fraud triggers insurance rates to soar, causing individuals and businesses to pay exorbitant fees to recover or maintain critical information.
Here are my five steps to help prevent fraud from happening to you:
- Take the necessary precautions. People are overwhelmed with the digital moves it takes to keep an eye on all their accounts. Turning a blind eye out of frustration only brings you trouble in the long run. Keep a close eye on all statements, including: credit cards, credit reports, banking, retirement and entitlement programs.
If there is suspicious activity, it is better to be safe than sorry. Report any warning signs to authorities and reporting agencies. Next, lock and monitor your credit, and place fraud alerts on your accounts. Be sure to properly dispose of any documents with your personal information attached. There are people who actually sift through trash cans to find this personal information for fraudulent activity. Try a shredder instead.
- Pay attention to traditional snail mail. Look out for fake mailers that are cryptically designed to appear as official. These can be from reputable institutions or agencies such as FEMA, the IRS or well-known insurance agencies. If someone is offering you a loan for which you did not apply—watch out. The false promises to ease your tax burden or relieve financial problems are often expecting you to send personal information.
Whatever you do, do not fill out the form with your information and send it back. Even if they offer partial information already, do not fill it out. Fraudulent parties use this data to create false identities, access accounts and take out loans and credit cards in your name. Needless to say, it can be a major headache for you. You can always call the real organization and ask them if they sent you something. It is kind to let them know fraudulent activity is going on under their guise as well.
- Secure your connections. Overcomplicate passwords with a combination of uppercase, lowercase, numbers, and symbols to make it harder for your accounts to be hacked. Also, never use the same passwords for multiple accounts. When logging in to personal accounts, check to make sure the padlock icon is in the search bar.
Try to not log into personal accounts on public Wi-Fi networks. This leaves people vulnerable to hacking from that connection forward—even after you are no longer connected. Use secure networks to access critical data and click ‘forget network’ on public unsecured Wi-Fi after you leave the area. If not, hackers can detect your device from the previous connection and easily hack into your information.
- Open emails with caution. Email became the most common form of communication in recent decades. However, many individuals are not aware of how susceptible they are to cyber threats via their email. Proceed with caution when clicking, downloading or forwarding emails from a source you don’t recognize. Sometimes, similar to the snail mail, these emails can be disguised as reputable companies you usually use. If something is spelled wrong or the images look a little different—be wary. Many of these emails are loaded with malicious software that grant hackers access to your personal data and systems. The avenues of fraud from these email tactics, known as phishing schemes, are endless.
- Take a 360-degree approach. When the average consumer examines solutions to help mitigate fraud, they must take an overall perspective—from 360 degrees. Our online vulnerabilities are vast. Even though it is everywhere, we cannot be overwhelmed by it. We need to remain aware and vigilant with our personal information and accounts. Don’t become obsessed with it, but keep the closest watch on the areas where you are the most vulnerable. Online financial actions including processing and transmitting personal data are the most at-risk. If you feel like something is an easy hack, for a cybercriminal it is a piece of cake.
Society needs trust to operate successfully. Transactions are based on a trust that you know who is on the other end, but what if you don’t? Individuals need to stay vigilant and be careful with their every digital move. Close attention to emails and snail mail alike will show people that something is awry.
With the myriad of avenues for fraud, it is best to check your accounts consistently; and don’t forget to listen to your gut. If you feel something doesn’t add up, something probably isn’t right. Utilize credit checking agencies to maintain a digital hold on your accounts. Don’t leave yourself out to dry in the digital scope. Stay on top of potential fraud with persistence.
Richard A. White is an Adjunct Professor at the University of Maryland University College where he is the Course Chair of Cybersecurity Information Assurance. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org