Think like a thief to keep your personal information secure at home

Familiar surroundings aren’t necessarily safe; take steps to protect your data

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The only rea­son you have not yet been the vic­tim of an iden­ti­ty-relat­ed crime (and that includes cred­it card fraud) is that no one prac­ticed in the art has had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to sep­a­rate you from your avail­able cred­it, health care or oth­er bank­able soft assets—yet.

Adam Levin, chair­man and co-founder of Credit.com and Cyber­Scout (for­mer­ly IDT911)

The fig­ures on data com­pro­mis­es vary, but Risk Based Secu­ri­ty esti­mates that just last year more than 4.2 bil­lion sen­si­tive records were compromised—information that opens the door to all kinds of iden­ti­ty-relat­ed malfea­sance, includ­ing account takeover, cred­it drain­ing, theft of health care, and even the com­mis­sion of a crime in the victim’s name.

To put it blunt­ly, your chances of avoid­ing fraud are right up there with win­ning it big at a bin­go con­ven­tion in Florida—slim to none.

Hope­ful­ly this is not news to you. If it is, read on for tips on how to pro­tect your­self against iden­ti­ty theft.

Famil­ial iden­ti­ty theft

Unless you’ve been pulling dou­ble shifts in a pyra­mid guard­ing one of the less­er-known pharaohs, you already know the basics about pro­tect­ing your­self against the threat of ID theft. You nev­er answer the phone by say­ing “Yes,” no mat­ter what the inter­locu­tor says (thieves steal voice­prints to authen­ti­cate your accounts and take them over), you use two-fac­tor authen­ti­ca­tion when­ev­er it’s offered, and your long-and-strong pass­words are nev­er used to access more than one account.

But here’s a fac­tor you may not be pro­tect­ing your­self against: the var­i­ous ways you are vul­ner­a­ble to iden­ti­ty theft at home.

The Iden­ti­ty Theft Resource Cen­ter has pro­vid­ed a com­pre­hen­sive guide for nav­i­gat­ing the prob­lem of famil­ial iden­ti­ty theft—that is, when a friend or a fam­i­ly mem­ber steals your identity.

While no one can be com­plete­ly pro­tect­ed from iden­ti­ty theft, there are things you can do to safe­guard your­self against this par­tic­u­lar approach. First, you can prac­tice the three Ms that I first intro­duced in my book, “Swiped: How to Pro­tect Your­self in a World Full of Scam­mers, Phish­ers, and Iden­ti­ty Thieves.”

  1. Min­i­mize your expo­sure. Don’t authen­ti­cate your­self to any­one unless you are in con­trol of the inter­ac­tion, don’t over­share on social media, be a good stew­ard of your pass­words, safe­guard any doc­u­ments that can be used to hijack your iden­ti­ty, and con­sid­er freez­ing your credit.
  1. Mon­i­tor your accounts. Check your cred­it report reg­u­lar­ly (you can check your cred­it report for free on com), keep track of your cred­it score, and review major accounts often. If you pre­fer a more laid­back approach, sign up for free trans­ac­tion alerts from finan­cial ser­vices insti­tu­tions and cred­it card com­pa­nies or pur­chase a sophis­ti­cat­ed cred­it- and iden­ti­ty-mon­i­tor­ing program.
  1. Man­age the dam­age. Make sure you quick­ly get on top of any incur­sion into your iden­ti­ty and enroll in a pro­gram where pro­fes­sion­als help you nav­i­gate and resolve iden­ti­ty compromises—oftentimes avail­able for free, or at min­i­mal cost, through insur­ance com­pa­nies, finan­cial ser­vices insti­tu­tions, and HR departments.

Min­i­mize your expo­sure to iden­ti­ty theft 

Regard­less of your income and regard­less of your like­abil­i­ty, some­one you know is prob­a­bly will­ing and able to steal your iden­ti­ty. To stave off that even­tu­al­i­ty, you need to prac­tice the first M: Min­i­mize your expo­sure at home.

Con­sid­er what kind of per­son­al­ly iden­ti­fi­able infor­ma­tion (PII) lives with you in your home—everything from tax returns to pass­word cheat sheets. Now think about where these things are stored.

If you are like most peo­ple, your tax returns are at best kept in a locked fil­ing cab­i­net with a key hid­den in a not-too-para­noid spot near­by. Maybe it’s time to rethink that card­board box.

Our homes are not per­fect sanc­tu­ar­ies, as much as we would like to think they are. Repair peo­ple come through, util­i­ty meters need to be read, we hire babysit­ters and house­keep­ers, friends and rel­a­tives come by to vis­it: all of them are poten­tial ID thieves. It may be only a mat­ter of time before they use that bare­ly hid­den key, or sim­ply take that card­board box.

Steps you can take

There are a vari­ety of things you can do to safe­guard your PII in your home and min­i­mize your attack­able surface.

  • Minia­tur­ize your data. Not only is a moun­tain of paper­work hard to store, it is also increas­ing­ly unnec­es­sary. Get into the habit of scan­ning or even pho­tograph­ing your doc­u­ments and then shred­ding the hard copies. Cre­ate two or three copies of the dig­i­tal files—and make sure one of them is stored some­where oth­er than your house, since fires and oth­er cat­a­clysmic events do happen.
  • Use encrypt­ed exter­nal stor­age. Whether you choose a thumb dri­ve, a cloud serv­er, or an exter­nal hard dri­ve, store your PII dig­i­tal­ly in an encrypt­ed form. And it’s always bet­ter to choose a device that offers rich secu­ri­ty fea­tures, like bio­met­rics or two-fac­tor authentication.
  • Invest in a safe. Once the exclu­sive equip­ment of rich folks, safes are now very afford­able. They are a great place to store all that minia­tur­ized data. Get one that is fire­proof and has a bio­met­ric ele­ment (like a fin­ger­print scan) to fur­ther pro­tect your information.
  • Employ two-fac­tor data man­age­ment. Store your data in more than one place. An encrypt­ed dri­ve can be left with the most untrust­wor­thy rel­a­tive. Just make sure you have a back­up some­where. If you have a safe­ty deposit box, that’s prob­a­bly the best bet.

At the end of the day, you are the only one with access to the data points need­ed to fig­ure out pre­cise­ly how vul­ner­a­ble you are to iden­ti­ty theft. If you think like a thief, you will be point­ed in the right direction.

 Full dis­clo­sure: Cyber­Scout spon­sors Third­Cer­tain­ty. This sto­ry orig­i­nat­ed as an Op/Ed con­tri­bu­tion to Credit.com and does not nec­es­sar­i­ly rep­re­sent the views of the com­pa­ny or its partners.

More on iden­ti­ty theft:
Iden­ti­ty Theft: What You Need to Know
3 Dumb Things You Can Do With Email
How Can You Tell If Your Iden­ti­ty Has Been Stolen?