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Practice Vigilance One Small Step at a Time

April 2018

Barbara O’Neill, Ph.D., CFP®
Extension Specialist in Financial Resource Management
Rutgers Cooperative Extension

After the Equifax hack, Americans were basically told to “deal with it” by checking our credit reports regularly, signing up for free credit monitoring, requesting a fraud alert, and freezing our credit. We were also told to “be vigilant” to guard against future identity theft crimes. What to do? Convert vague advice into concrete action steps that can be practiced for the remainder of your life. Why so long? Hacked data is basically “out there” forever and can remain dormant for years before it is actually misused. Below are 25 vigilant practices to put into practice:

  • Carefully Review Credit Card Statements - Look for unauthorized charges and/or unknown merchants; especially beware of small charges (e.g., $1) that fraudsters may make in anticipation of making larger charges later
  • Carefully Review Bank Account Statements - Look for unauthorized withdrawals and account transfers
  • Reconcile Your Checkbook Monthly - Look for unauthorized transactions and checks with changed payees
  • Secure Your Debit Cards - Know that it can take weeks to recover funds that are stolen from a bank account
  • Use Credit Instead of Debit Cards - Do this for better fraud protection and to postpone payment for a purchase
  • Secure Your Checkbook - Keep it out of plain sight and immediately report missing checks to your bank
  • Consider a Credit Freeze - Prevent lenders from reviewing your credit to head off new fraudulent accounts
  • Use Strong Computer Passwords - Don't use your birth date because this information has now been exposed
  • Shred Personal Documents - Use a crosscut shredder to destroy old credit card, bank, and broker statements
  • Check Your Credit Report- Request one credit report every four months on a rotating basis from the “Big Three” credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion) via
  • Monitor Your Credit Score- Look for a sharp drop in your score, which could indicate fraudulent activity
  • Never Let Your Cards Out of Sight- Use credit and debit cards for payment only where you can swipe them yourself; for gasoline and restaurant meals, try to pay at a cash register or keep attendants and servers in sight
  • Secure Electronic Devices- Put passwords on laptops, tablets, and phones if used for financial transactions
  • Practice Digital Security- Guard passwords, PINs, security questions, and other account login information
  • Secure Sensitive Data at Home- Do this when contractors, caregivers, and others have unsupervised access
  • Smash Old PC Hard Drives and Cell Phones- Do this to assure that sensitive saved data cannot be misused
  • Beware of Phishing Frauds- Delete suspicious e-mails and text messages that request data and/or payment.
  • Avoid Remote ATMs- Do not use ATMs far from bank cameras that may have skimming devices attached
  • Beware Public Wi-Fi Connections- Do not use unprotected Wi-Fi for purchases or banking transactions
  • Take Advantage of Free Credit Monitoring- Sign up for post-hack credit monitoring, when offered; it doesn't cost you anything and will save on regular costs that typically range around $120 to $150 per year
  • File Your Income Taxes Early- Beat fraudsters to your tax refund as they now have the name, address, and Social Security number of 145.5 million Americans, which is everything needed to file a fraudulent tax return
  • Avoid Over-Withholding- Adjust your tax withholding, using a new W-4 form, to get a smaller refund or no refund; you'll have little or no money stolen if someone uses your hacked data to claim a fraudulent tax refund
  • Look for Suspicious Activity - Beware of “red flags” for tax ID theft such as a tax notice from an unknown employer; if you receive such a notice, contact the employer to explain that someone stole your identity
  • Beware of Phony IRS Pretexting - Remember that the IRS rarely contacts taxpayers by phone and never by e-mail and the Equifax hack fraudsters have lots of information to sound convincing; delete or hang up
  • Review Medical Bills and Explanation of Benefits (EOB) Statements - Scrutinize bills and EOB forms to look for medical services that were not received by you; medical identity theft is very serious and can potentially lead to death

Many of the above actions can become personal habits or “decision rules” that you simply adopt as a matter of practice (e.g., checking credit reports and bank statements). Others can be implemented on an “as needed” basis (e.g., smashing hard drives and hanging up on suspicious phone calls). The next time someone says “be vigilant,” don't brush it off. Take positive action to protect yourself against future frauds and to detect possible fraud from your data that was stolen.