Q: My son is in his early 20s and he rents a two-bedroom apartment in a somewhat pricey part of town. Over the years he’s had some great roommates move in and share expenses, however, he recently had to evict a guy. My son didn’t realize it at the time, but the guy intruded on my son’s privacy. The final straw was when the guy joked about knowing the password to my son’s cellphone. My son thought his now ex-roommate was kidding, but soon found out he wasn’t. Now he’s worried the guy did more than snoop through his Instagram account. My son changed all his passwords and deleted apps and accounts from his phone he doesn’t need. But is there really any way we can protect ourselves from fraud and identity theft? ~Mylène
A: Protecting ourselves — our assets, money, identity and personal lives — in the digital and electronic age is more important than ever. But because there are so many aspects to it, it can feel overwhelmingly complicated. Your son did the right thing by evicting someone who is, at best, overstepping the boundaries and, at worst, up to illegal activity. Your son shouldn’t have to feel on guard in his own home.
If you think your personal details have been compromised
If something has happened and you think your personal information may have ended up in the wrong hands, take immediate steps to report and secure yourself going forward. File a police report, change all of your passwords and PIN numbers, notify financial institutions and other account holders of the (potential) breach, check your credit bureau report at least once a year, and consider subscribing to a credit report monitoring service.
To try and minimize your chances of becoming a victim, here are nine ways you might not think about as you look for ways to protect your home, privacy and finances from intruders:
Protecting yourself at home:
Smart home: Decide if you really need a smart home, or even some smart features. Controlling the lights or music in your home with an app on your phone, with a location-based service, or by voice command might seem like a cool party trick, but the access you grant your devices to set this up might not be worth the cost if the information gets into the wrong hands.
Title insurance: It’s not something we hear about too often in Canada, but you can buy insurance against someone trying to gain ownership over your property without your knowledge. Someone may try to do this in a number of ways, and fraud or forgery is one of them.
Security software: Install and use it on all computers and devices with which you access the internet. Firewalls, anti-virus and malware detection programs are a must. Keep your operating systems up to date on computers and mobile devices. This ensures you have the latest patches and updates installed for threats you may not even be aware of yet.
Protecting your personal privacy:
Passwords: They are your first line of defence. Many people don’t use different, strong passwords for every one of their accounts because they are afraid of forgetting them all. Reusing a password is risky. However, if you incur a loss and it comes down to your password having been compromised, you might not be able to recover what you’ve lost.
Take steps to secure your accounts by enabling two-step authentication wherever possible and choosing security questions only you know the answer to for resetting the account. There’s also no harm writing passwords down in a safe, secret place, separate from account login details because it’s wise to change passwords frequently. You may even consider using an encrypted password keeper app or program.
Use paper and virtual shredders: Shred documents and receipts that contain bar codes, loyalty card numbers, account details and personal information. Fraudsters can and will search through even the garbage to assemble the details they need to steal your identity. The same can be said for electronic information. Many anti-virus programs have a “shredder” option when it comes to deleting files and permanently removing them from your computer.
Take control of communication: If you receive an email that you aren’t entirely sure you requested, and it’s asking you to verify account information by clicking a link, either navigate to the company’s website yourself or call their customer service department instead (at the number you look up on the website). That way you can be sure who you’re dealing with because phishing emails are designed to deceive you.
Protecting your money and finances:
Buying online: Do not allow online retailers to store your credit card and payment information. It takes a moment or two longer to enter it with every purchase, but that lack of convenience will not only keep your money a little safer from yourself, but your identity as well should their system be compromised.
Receiving bills and statements: Stay on top of your mail and be aware of your billing cycles. Bills for household services, e.g. gas, electricity or cellphones, and bank, investment account or credit card statements shouldn’t go missing. If your mailbox isn’t in a secure location, take steps to secure it, rent a post office box, or switch to electronic statements.
Keep limits low: Lower credit card and line of credit limits to what is reasonable given your financial circumstances. Adjust your marketing preferences at your financial institution to indicate that you do not wish to receive limit increase offers. Many people view high limits like a badge of honour but if anyone gains access to your accounts through fraudulent or illegal means, you could be on the hook to pay back some or all of what is owed.
The bottom line on protecting yourself from fraud, theft and illegal activity
Many people are their own worst security risk, which they unfortunately don’t discover without the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. From clicking on a tempting link to visiting a questionable website, downloading an app from a less secure source, uploading way too much private information online, or innocently falling for a phishing scam — if you think you’ve fallen for a scam that opens you up to potential fraud or theft, talk to someone qualified to help you sooner than later. A lot of illegal activity continues because people are embarrassed to report it. So unless it’s a completely legitimate situation in which you must reveal personally identifying details and/or payment information, scale back how much of your privacy you forego and remain in control of the situation.
Scott Hannah is president of the Credit Counselling Society, a non-profit organization. For more information about managing your money or debt, contact Scott by email, check www.nomoredebts.org or call 1-888-527-8999.