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The recent hacking of Anthem Insurance along with the prior breach of Target, Home Depot, Michael’sJP Morgan and others has shaken everyone’s sense of security.  The increase of data collection and sharing in our society make it virtually impossible to remove our personal financial information from view, so we need to know how to protect ourselves from the misuse of it instead.

When police officers spoke with our clients in the past about identity theft at our Lunch & Learn programs, the primary resource used by thieves was credit card offers and other financial mail stolen from trash and mailboxes.  Names, addresses, Social Security numbers and account numbers were used to apply for new credit cards or to deplete existing accounts.  This still occurs, but you can protect yourself by shredding investment statements, credit card bills, credit offers and other statements before putting them in the trash.  A mailbox with the flag up tells a thief there’s probably a statement inside, so you’re better off mailing those from a mailbox or paying the bill on-line.  Which brings us to our other source of vulnerability.

Shopping, maintaining health insurance coverage, and banking now expose us to identity theft, due to the increasing sophistication of computer hackers.  In the case of the Anthem breach, it was reported that hackers were inside the Anthem system as far back as April 2014, and it took nine months before anyone at Anthem knew about it.  To make matters worse, this and other breaches are supposedly coming from perpetrators outside the U.S., so it’s more difficult for authorities to trace the attacks and recover funds.

So how do you protect yourself?

Watch the account activity in your credit cards and investment accounts.  Some of the hackers begin using your credit card with only small transactions to test whether or not they can get away with something.  Once they do, they try more.  To protect against unauthorized charges some companies, including American Express, Capital One and Citibank, offer email or text alerts that can be sent to notify you when your card has been used.

Check your credit reports on the free credit report website, AnnualCreditReport.com to spot any unusual activity in your history.  This website allows you to access your reports with each of the three reporting agencies:  Experian, TransUnion and Equifax; and provides you with one report from each resource each year.  By staggering your request from each agency every four months, you can monitor your situation throughout the year for free.  They also offer resources such as common signs of theft and who to contact if you think something is wrong.

Be very careful about emails and links you receive from companies or even friends.  One of the sad truths about the Anthem breach is thieves are using the situation to steal again by sending out emails and text messages purporting to be from Anthem.  Anthem has confirmed that they will not be emailing or calling anyone.  They will be sending information through the U.S. mail, and have a website where impacted clients can go to get information on how to access and sign up for free identity theft repair and credit monitoring services.

Email scams have become increasingly sophisticated, and are no longer broken English requests for your Social Security number.  Many now contain official looking corporate logos, government requests and enticing advertisements for Amazon offers.   If you think you are receiving a request from a legitimate company or agency, don’t click on the link or reply to the email.  Instead, go to the official company website, and use the contact information listed to contact someone and confirm the information with them directly.

You can put a credit freeze on your credit report, which restricts access to your information and makes it more difficult for thieves (and you) to open new accounts in your name, but it may be a minor inconvenience for your peace of mind.

Don’t go to unfamiliar websites, or click on pop-up advertisements.   Many of these websites collect your data by downloading malware onto your computer that sends back keystrokes that look like passwords.

Make sure you have your personal computer protected by a firewall and anti-virus software.  Both will help protect your computer against applications that try to connect to your computer, or will detect malware that makes its way into your computer before it can do more damage.

The Identity Theft Resource Center is a non-profit financed by companies working together to prevent identity theft.  Their website provides extensive information on how thefts occur, how to prevent them, and what to do if you are a victim.  They even offer free assistance to those impacted by identity theft.

Here at TAAG we review account activity in our clients’ Fidelity and Schwab accounts daily, which is why some of you may have received a phone call or email from us when we see something that doesn’t fit your normal pattern of behavior.   We also require signatures, sometimes in person, for transactions such as wires to third parties.

Ten years ago I attended the inaugural T3 Conference, a technology conference designed to provide financial advisors with the latest tools available to increase efficiency and allow us to focus on our clients.   Last week I returned, and I was amazed by the sophistication of the tools, the focus on cyber security, and the speed of change over such a short period of time.

We can’t slow progress, so we all need to learn to adapt!