How to avoid identity theft

Bad news if you were hoping to stay safe online: the number of victims of identity theft rose by 57% in the last year, according to fraud prevention service Cifas.

But unlike previous rises, the victims of identity theft are no longer targeted by fraudsters digging through rubbish bins for bank statements, or by hackers installing keyloggers on compromised PCs. Instead, according to Cifas, the victims are giving out the base ingredients of identity theft willingly online, through social media.

So how do you avoid being the victim of online identity theft? It’s easy if you know how.

Lock down your Facebook
When people say “social media”, they really mean “Facebook”. Just think about the sort of information that Facebook knows about you: it’ll have your birthday and your email address for sure. You might have told it who your mother is, and she might have told it her maiden name. Lovers past and present will show up on the site (and even if you didn’t change relationship status, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that the person who starts sending ? and ? emoji regularly might be someone special), and if you’re like any pet owner I know, so too will they.

You don’t have to stop posting that information, and most people would find it difficult to do so even if they did have to. But take a good look at the privacy settings on your Facebook account – accessed by clicking the padlock on the top right – and ask yourself whether any of this information needs to be public (or, in Facebook terms, available to “Everyone”). And keep checking, because Facebook has a habit of adding new privacy settings all the time.

Think before you tweet

Even if your Facebook is private, some of your social media will probably be public. That’s not a problem in itself, but it’s important to remember that information useful to identity thieves may not seem all that personal. You probably wouldn’t tweet your home address – but would you instagram a view from your bedroom window? It’s not too difficult to narrow that down to a door number, particularly if you’ve shared other information about the rough area where you live. (One of my friends once managed to find out my home address thanks to an encyclopaedic knowledge of where various tube lines run above ground.)

And those viral trends of finding out your “porn star name” – the street you were born on, plus your mother’s maiden name? Maybe don’t join in with them quite so readily. (Did you know your Cyborg Name is the 16-digit number on the front of your credit card plus the 3 digit CV2 code on the back? It’s true. Email me yours!)

Keep track of your accounts
Credit monitoring services maybe seem like a luxury, but they can often be the only way of getting a heads-up if someone has successfully opened a new bank account or credit card in your name. Even if that’s not something you’re willing to spend money on, at least enable online banking for your main accounts and get in the habit of checking them. It will give you early warning if your cash gets siphoned away – and have the added bonus of making it easier for you to manage your money.

Oh, and … don’t tweet pictures of your credit cards
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You would not believe how many people’s first instinct upon getting a new credit card is to tweet a picture of it out of excitement. Don’t be those people.