Having your wallet stolen is an unnerving experience that can leave you feeling panicked, violated and anxious. And as more of our personal and financial information moves online, hackers have new opportunities to steal our virtual wallets – which can be as bad or even worse than a physical theft.
In September 2017, the credit bureau Equifax revealed that the files of 145.5 million American consumers had been compromised. These files contained clients’ personal information such as their names, addresses, social security numbers and, in some cases, driver’s licence numbers. In Canada, the breach affected around 8,000 people, according to the firm’s latest press release. Other data breaches, such as the 2013 Yahoo breach, which affected 3 billion users, and yet another Equifax hack in October 2017, have many Canadians thinking about fraud.
Fraud is a widespread issue that costs Canada $290 million from January 2014 to December 2016, according to the Competition Bureau. If you’re one of the many Canadians affected by identity theft, don’t panic. There are precautions you can take to protect yourself and prevent future incidents.
What to do if you believe your identity has been stolen
Canadians affected by the Equifax breach will receive a letter with more insights on how their file was affected.
However, if you suspect that you are a victim of any sort of identity fraud, contact your financial institutions and then contact the national credit bureaus. In Canada, Equifax Canada is one of the 2 main bureaus. The other is TransUnion Canada. The agencies may suggest you put a credit freeze on your account for a fee. This is helpful because it blocks anyone trying to open any new accounts in your name.
10 tips for protecting your personal information
The RCMP says the best way to know if your identity has been compromised is to monitor your financial accounts regularly. It's also important to share information only with trusted companies and devices. Ultimately, it boils down to being scrupulous with whom you give your information to, according to Craig Peppard, the Director of Security Governance at Sun Life Financial. “Every time you give your information to a company you’re increasing your risk, because you’re creating a new repository,” says Peppard.
Here are some critical steps you can take to protect your personal information, based on advice from experts like Peppard:
- Sign up for a credit monitoring service. Credit monitoring services alert you to major changes to your credit file. That means if a new account is created in your name or a creditor reports a late payment on one of your accounts, you’ll receive an alert. Credit Karma (which uses a scoring method created by Trans Union) now offers this service free to its users. Equifax has also recently introduced free credit monitoring to its clients for a limited time.
- Review your credit report, not just your score. Credit reports will give you a more comprehensive view of any credit history than your score.
- Receive alerts when your credit card is used. Many financial institutions will send you a notification via an app, email or text when your credit card is used or your account is accessed. This is a great way to monitor your spending; it also gives you a real-time notification if your card is used or your account is used. When considering a new credit card, ask the lender what kind of credit protection and credit alert features they offer. Also, pay attention to any account activity alerts from other financial institutions like insurance companies or investment management firms.
- Don’t carry around any ID that isn’t essential. The RCMP’s website suggests you place any important cards in a secure place until you need them. That way you lower the risk of your cards being stolen. For example, memorize your social insurance number rather than carrying around your card.
- Alert your financial institutions and post office if you move. That way your personal information doesn’t end up in a stranger’s mailbox after you’ve changed your address.
- Shred confidential documents before putting them in the garbage.
- Use a 2-step verification process when available when logging into your accounts online. A 2-step sign-in process means entering a unique security code sent to your phone or answering a security question before accessing your account. This may mean it takes an extra few minutes to log in, but it gives you extra protection.
- Don’t overshare online. Make sure your security questions can’t be easily answered by someone who follows you on social media. “Don’t give a bad guy who may have a fake profile too much information. Don’t share anything on Facebook that you wouldn’t want to put on a postcard posted in a public space,” says Peppard.
- Create an account on your computer with limited permissions and do your online shopping and banking on that account. “Primarily use an account with limited permissions. That way when you’re doing online shopping etc., you’re not doing it with the ID that has access to everything. That will help, if and when you get hit,” says Mary O'Ryan, Senior Security Governance Specialist at Sun Life.
- Be cautious of IoT (Internet of Things) devices. IoT devices such as automated thermostats, smart TVs and smart speakers are hot items right now, but they pose new security risks, says Peppard: “As [IOT devices] age, their firmware may not update frequently and if they’re set up with older types of encryption they may not give you adequate protection – leaving your devices at risk for an attack.” Peppard suggests you skip adding your credit card information to your devices unless it’s absolutely necessary.
Preventative safeguards are the best defence against fraud
On October 12, the U.S. Equifax site took down one of its customer service pages temporarily, after criminals allegedly hacked the site so that it would send users dangerous software disguised as Adobe Flash. This latest incident is just one of thousands of digital scams lurking on the web. There’s no sure-fire way to ensure your information will never be breached, but these tips can help lower your risk. Ultimately, the best defence is a good offence.