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Piershale: Cyber crime is a growing threat

There is little doubt online communications have changed the world.

On the positive side, the Internet allows people to gather and share information, facilitates marketing and sales of goods, supports communication in real time across great distances, and gives people the ability to do much more. On the negative side, the Internet may expose users to bullying, stalking and privacy violations. In addition, the storage and transfer of electronic data – including personal information, credit card numbers and other data – led to a cyber crime wave.  

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice, 16.6 million Americans (7 percent of the population age 16 or older) were the victims of identity theft during 2012. The vast majority of incidents involved the theft and fraudulent use of existing account information. Financial losses resulting from personal identity theft totaled almost $25 billion. That’s about $10 billion more than the losses attributed to all other property crimes. 

Ben Franklin once wrote, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” That is certainly the case when it comes to protecting your personal data. Here are a few suggestions for securing your personal information online:

Protect your accounts: Choose strong passwords that incorporate letters, numbers and symbols and, just as importantly, do not use the same password for all of your accounts. If you’re prone to forgetting passwords, keep a password list in your safe or invest in security software that will track passwords for various sites and allow you to access them with a single password.

Look for security: If you make purchases online, be sure you have a secure connection. Look at the website address. If it starts with “https” or shows a green box with a padlock, typically the connection is secure. It’s also essential to equip your computers and mobile devices with security software.

Set account alerts: Many banks, financial institutions and credit monitoring agencies offer alerts to notify consumers when changes occur with their accounts. These alerts often are email notices.

Be wary: Be wary when using free WiFi. It’s generally not a good idea to access financial accounts or password-protected sites on shared networks (free WiFi is giving you access to a shared network) because it is possible for hackers to track your actions. Kiplinger’s cited an expert who suggested using your phone’s 3G or 4G mobile phone service to access the Internet may be a better choice than using free WiFi.

Read your bills: A lot of people pay their bills electronically and never take time to review the charges. No matter what type of payment option you employ, it’s critical to review every charge. Unexpected charges could be accidental or they could be evidence your data has been stolen. If you find a mistake, report it right away.

Take action: In 2012, one-in-four consumers who received a letter informing them their data had been breached became the victim of identity fraud. According to Javelin Strategy and Research, “While credit card numbers remain the most popular item revealed in a data breach, in reality, other information can be more useful to fraudsters. Personal information such as online banking login, username, and password were compromised in 10 percent of incidents, and 16 percent of incidents included Social Security numbers.” If you receive a letter informing you of a breach, take steps to protect yourself such as setting up account alerts and/or enrolling in an identity protection service.

The Internet has become ubiquitous – a necessity for many Americans. As a result, it’s important to be aware of the risks involved when going online and taking appropriate precautions to protect your personal and financial information.  

• Mike Piershale, ChFC, is president of Piershale Financial Group. Reach him at mike.piershale@piershalefinancial.com. 

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