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50 Ways to Protect Your Identity in a Digital Age

In 2001, Steve Weisman became one of the now 10 per cent of Americans victimized by identity theft each year.

Perhaps his story sounds familiar: One day his locker was broken into at the gym. At first he didn't realize anything was taken -- the lock was put back and nothing was missing from his belongings -- but then he started noticing fraudulent charges on his credit card and that other pieces of his identity were being used. Perhaps more disturbing, all of the activity was eventually traced to a fellow gym member.

Since then, the Bentley University law professor in Waltham, Mass., has dedicated himself to making sure no one else gets victimized by identity theft and has become one of America's premiere experts on the subject. He has appeared many times on Dr. Phil, CNN and New England Cable News and has written numerous books on the topic. Recently Bankrate Canada sat down with Weisman to talk about his latest one, "50 Ways to Protect Your Identity in a Digital Age."

Q: Why did you write this book at this moment and time?
A: "Identity theft evolves with the technology a great deal. Some of the schemes are very, very old and are just variations and updates of scams that have been around for a long time. However, as more and more of us have become dependent on our smartphones and other portable devices, I find it startling that there are so many people who would take precautions on their home computer, but don't with their smartphone. They don't even have a password, let alone security software, even though they may be using them for financial purposes, such as banking, purchasing and paying bills. So, I really wanted to show people where the latest threats were."

Q: How have the old scams we all know changed or been updated?
A: "Well, phishing has gotten much more sophisticated. People are now able to spoof what looks like the actual address of the website in question, so you no longer can look for random letters and numbers in the address bar to tell if it's fake. But it's also evolved to Spear Phishing, which is when a company you've done business with gets hacked and you get an email claiming to be from them and addressed to you personally. This is something more people will fall for, which is part of my lesson: anytime you get a message that asks for personal information, you got to make sure it's legitimate before you provide it."

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Q: How do you motivate people to take that extra step of verification and not have their trusting assumptions and laziness exploited?
A: "You have to always be skeptical and you have to have backups. For instance, you have to make sure that your security software is not only current, but it is constantly updating. Microsoft is pretty good at creating patches for their software, but there are a lot of people who don't download them or don't do it automatically and they pay for this, while the identity thieves count on it. So you have to follow simple procedures, which is why, in the back of the book, I listed a number of things people can and should do to protect themselves."

Q: People are often overwhelmed by the amount of things they need to do to shore up their security, so what are the top five or six things people should do above everything else?
A: "The first thing you do is you put a credit freeze on your credit report because once an identity thief steals your critical information, they can access your credit report to approve large purchases and if you have it locked with a PIN number on the account, then they can't make those large purchases. The second thing is, don't use a debit card for purchases and use it only as an ATM card. Credit cards have a limit to your liability of $50, but with debit cards you can lose your entire bank account. Thirdly, don't carry your social insurance number with you and don't provide it to companies that ask for it unless they really need it. Check your credit report; you can get free copies of it at least once a year. Shred documents that you're throwing away because identity theft can be high-tech, low-tech or no-tech and no-tech is just going through your trash and finding various bills that you may throw out. Finally, on all your electronic devices, from your computer to your smartphone, make sure that you have a complex password and security software that is constantly updated. Doing those things will go a long way in protecting the average person."

Q: How do you protect yourself if the corporations that hold your critical information are compromised by identity thieves?
A: "You are only as safe as the weakest place that holds your data... You can leave your credit card information with Amazon for the next time you make a purchase and that's where I say, don't do it. Input that information cleanly every time. Limit [how much you] volunteer your information, ask companies how they secure it and only provide what they need. But frankly, you're always going to be somewhat compromised."

Aaron Broverman is a writer in Toronto.

-- Posted January 4, 2013
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