It’s a quiet crime. No breathless TV reporting, no big newspaper headlines.
Yet about 1 in 14 Americans — some 17.6 million people — had their identities stolen in 2014, at a cost of $50 billion. A good portion of these thefts happen to online shoppers, who often don’t have a clue something ‘s up until their credit card company or bank contacts them, or — weeks later — when they notice suspicious charges on their bills.
Online thieves are not biased; they’re merely opportunistic. People over 65 are increasingly targeted, and women are victims more often than men. These thieves generally aren’t stupid: Households with incomes above $75,000 are hit the most.
Folks are smartening up, though, and financial institutions such as Magnolia State Bank want to help customers further protect themselves. Here are some tips on how to shop securely online:
Check out the site: Look for a closed padlock on your web browser’s address bar and a URL that begins with “https” or “shttp.” These signal that the site is secured and transactions made there are encrypted.
Use credit cards: Your liability in cases of credit card fraud is capped by law at $50 — and often it’s more like zero. Debit cards have some protections, too, but one big difference is that with an unauthorized transaction your money is affected right away, and instead of disputing charges you are trying to recover cash. Credit cards are the safer bet.
Avoid the TMI trap: Too much information can be fatal. Companies want lots of data about you, but they often don’t need it for a purchase. When completing forms, don’t fill in any boxes not marked as required. Read those long, boring privacy policies; they may be selling your information to other companies. And never give information when fielding a request that comes via email; reputable companies don’t operate that way.
Keep a paper trail: This may seem old-fashioned, but print copies of your transactions and check them against future bills. If nothing else, you may realize what you thought was a one-time $9.99 purchase is now a monthly recurrence.
Log off: A constant Internet connection gives thieves full-time access to your computer. Turn it off when you’re done shopping; it takes only a few seconds to log back on.
Be careful with the phone: Yes, smartphones can do everything but cook your breakfast, but they aren’t equipped with the virus and malware protection your computer has. They also are more easily stolen, so make sure yours is passcode protected.
Avoid public Wi-Fi: Most hotspots don’t encrypt your data, so using public Wi-Fi leaves you vulnerable to any thief with the right software.
Change your passwords: Yes, it’s a hassle, but it’s smart to do this at least every six months. Avoid using the same password — no matter how complex — across all your accounts; that makes all of them vulnerable to a thief who has broken into one.
Yes, this is work. But it’s your money. Protect it.
Lynn Mucken, NerdWallet
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