In the past month we’ve seen an increase in identity theft, as fraudsters take advantage of challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Use our tips to avoid becoming a victim of ID fraud.
As the Everett Herald reported in May, much of the recent ID theft in the Pacific Northwest is tied to false unemployment claims. Tens of thousands of Washington residents have been affected by “imposter fraud.” If your information was compromised under an earlier data breach, you may be more at risk for unemployment identify fraud.
The good news is, the state’s Employment Security Department has implemented new security measures that have significantly reduced the number of imposter unemployment claims in the last few weeks. However, our team has also seen an increase in ID theft related to mail theft and online shopping, as families do more of their shopping through websites and phone apps.
This is a great time to do a quick risk assessment and take steps to protect you and your loved ones.
1. Reduce your risk:
- Don’t get hooked! Unfortunately, scammers are taking advantage of our uncertain situation with phishing scams and fake online offers seemingly related to the coronavirus outbreak. Be extra cautious when opening emails or clicking unknown links. When in doubt, go to the source – contact the institution directly or type in the URL for the organization you’re trying to reach. Consumer Reports recently published some helpful tips for avoiding coronavirus phishing scams.
- Safeguard personal information on printed materials. Invest in a locking mailbox if possible and resist the urge to use your car as a storage spot for documents. For paperwork that must be kept, consider using an off-site safety deposit box or scanning documents for online storage on a secure server. Shred any documents that are no longer needed.
- Be password savvy. Experts recommend that strong passwords be at least 8 characters long (even longer is better!) and not contain common words, such as “password.” Avoid using proper words or names or dates like birthdays and anniversaries. And while it’s not a good idea to use the same password for multiple sites, you can adapt your password for different sites by adding extensions. A recent CNET article has several tips for developing strong passwords and keeping them safe, including considering using a password manager.
- Use a credit card when possible. Debit transactions draw funds directly from your bank account, and once the money’s out, it can be very hard to dispute the expense. Credit cards, on the other hand, don’t instantly transfer funds out of your account and typically allow a longer time period for questioning or disputing charges. For our team member Caitlin Klosterman, the first sign that something was amiss with her debit card was an emailed payment receipt in a foreign language. When she logged into her bank account, she discovered a thief had already racked up nearly $1,000 in charges! Because it was a debit card, the charges had to clear the bank before Caitlin could dispute them and get her money back, which took nearly a week.
2. Protect your phone:
- Your phone is just as susceptible to identity theft as your computer. Most of our phones are connected to the internet for much of the day, putting them at risk for cyber threats. Whether you’re checking your email, scrolling through social media or searching the web, be just as alert for phishing scams on your phone as you would be on your laptop.
- Watch out for “smishing,” or phishing by SMS/text message. The FCC reports an uptick in scams delivered via text message, often appearing to come from a bank and containing a link to click or phone number to call. Experts advise that most of us are at greater risk for falling for scams on our phones because we tend to trust text messages over emails. If you receive a suspicious text message, delete it. Don’t click on any links and don’t respond (even just to reply “STOP”). The FCC also recommends making sure you have the latest security update installed on your phone.
- Think twice before adding a new app. “Before downloading a new game to kill time, do a little research on the app and the app’s developer,” suggests The Balance. “Carelessly downloading apps invites spyware, ransomware, and data leakage.” An app may seem harmless but could be gathering personal data that puts you at risk for identity theft.
3. Make the most of automatic alerts and free resources:
- Many banks and credit cards offer notifications, such as “card-not-present” alerts, that will give you a heads up about suspicious activity in your accounts. Just last week, team member Nick Pembroke’s mother-in-law got a text message from her bank about a suspicious charge on her credit card. She was able to stop the charge and have a new card issued before any further damage was done.
- Your credit reports can help alert you to signs of fraud. Visit annualcreditreport.com to request your free reports.
4. Get help in dealing with identity fraud:
- In the unfortunate event that you or a family member has your personal information compromised, the Federal Trade Commission’s identity theft website can help you report and recover from ID fraud.
- You can find other identity theft resources on the Washington Attorney General’s site: atg.wa.gov/recovering-identity-theft-or-fraud.
Most homeowners policies offer ID fraud expense reimbursement coverage, and we highly recommend that our customers carry this coverage. If you’re a PEMCO policyholder, for instance, you have access to PEMCO ID Smart: In the event of identity theft, PEMCO ID Smart representatives will walk you through each step of the process.
If you’re not sure whether you have ID fraud expense reimbursement coverage, contact our team and we can review your policy with you.