In the past 12 months your personal information has likely been stolen, leaving you vulnerable to identity theft.
About 432 million online accounts belonging to 110 million Americans - roughly half of all adults - were hacked in cyberattacks during the past year, according to new findings by the Ponemon Institute, a data-collection research firm.
Meanwhile, Consumer Reports estimates that some 11 million Americans fell victim to email scams in 2013. And in the first four months of this year, at least 260 breaches occurred at health care facilities, exposing sensitive data of some 8 million people.
From coffee shops to corporate computer networks, at your computer or at cash registers where you shop, on the phone or on the road, the risks are so widespread that two-thirds of 3,110 respondents to a Consumer Reports survey said they do nothing to protect themselves - the apathetic result of what experts call data-breach fatigue from the seemingly nonstop parade of high-profile hacking of customer records at Target, Neiman Marcus, Adobe and others, often orchestrated by foreign-based scammers.
Bad move. "The most effective defense against an international onslaught of shadowy hackers is a well-informed and vigilant individual," notes Consumer Reports.
That's why AARP launched Fraud Watch Network. Our network of experts, law enforcement and everyday people like you, who share news and views of scams occurring in their state and in cyberspace, is a way to protect yourself and stay one step ahead of scammers. Other ways to safeguard your personal data:
Don't share anything you don't have to. That includes your Social Security number at the doctor's office or on medical forms (if needed, your insurer can provide it); where you live, work, shop or vacation on social media; or any personal or financial information in phone calls or emails you do not initiate.
Monitor your financial life. Don't rely solely on monthly statements from your bank or credit card companies; check account activity online or by phone at least weekly for quick indicators of fraud. Also, do what many Americans don't: Access your free credit reports every four months at AnnualCreditReport.com. If you're not planning to apply for new credit, enact a security freeze at each of the three credit reporting bureaus: Experian, TransUnion and Equifax. You can always "unthaw" it if needed.
Protect your technology. In addition to using strong and different passwords on different accounts and on all electronic devices, change them frequently (take note, smartphone users). Take an extra step, too, by checking for updates on security software, just in case not all are automatic.
Be a smart shopper. Use a credit card over a debit card when shopping online, traveling, at the gas station and most everywhere else. Never shop (or do any financial transaction, including checking banking or credit card accounts) on public Wi-Fi networks. And when online shopping (ideally from a secure home account), always try to type website addresses yourself; relying on links in emails, advertisements or online searches can take you to a scammer-run site or download malware to your computer. When using your smartphone to shop, use retailers' dedicated apps, rather than your phone's browser.
Be skeptical. Those "Dear Customer" emails from retailers with which you do business? They're likely bogus (they have your name, but do they have your email?), so don't click on their links. And even with a personalized email, before clicking, hover your computer mouse over the link and you should see a full website address. If it's not what appears in an email-offered link, assume you're being directed to a scammer-run website or about to download malware. Don't trust emails, text messages or phone calls that ask you to confirm recent transactions (legitimate retail sites will send an order confirmation, usually with instructions on how to track the delivery of your purchase, but they will not ask for confirmation). Also beware of "warnings" from your bank asking you to confirm your account; look up the phone number yourself if you're worried.
For information about other scams, sign up for the Fraud Watch Network . You'll receive free email alerts with tips and resources to help you spot and avoid identity theft and fraud, and gain access to a network of experts, law enforcement and people in your community who will keep you up-to-date on the latest scams in your area.
Also of Interest
- 6 Places Never to Use a Debit Card
- 10 Things Flight Attendants Wish They Could Say, But Can't
- Fight Fraud and ID Theft With the AARP Fraud Watch Network
- Join AARP: savings, resources and news for your well-being
See the AARP home page for deals, savings tips, trivia and more.