In the three seconds it takes you to log on to your email account, another person in the United States has his or her identity stolen. In 2012, more than 12 million people were victims of identity fraud, according to Javelin Strategy & Research, including those who were targeted online.
How can you help elude attacks by these fraudsters? Start by increasing your awareness of how cybercrime occurs and taking a few simple steps to help protect your personal information.
"Vigilance is the starting point for protecting your identity," says Gary McAlum, USAA's chief security officer. "If you ever get an unsolicited email or phone call from someone wanting your personal information, it pays to be cautious. Being an informed online consumer is the best line of defense against cybercriminals."
Take these precautions to arm yourself:
1. Make Your Passwords Tough to Crack
To keep intruders out of your personal accounts, use strong passwords that someone else cannot guess. A password should be easy enough to remember so you don't have to write it down, yet strong enough to block a cyberattack. Rather than a name or common dictionary word, use a combination of uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers and symbols, such as 9*R5$@yiTS. Come up with a nonsensical statement -- not a well-known quote -- to make a mnemonic password. The password above came from the easy-to-remember phrase "nine stars are five dollars at yuccas in the sky."
Generally, changing your password annually is adequate; if you create a new one too frequently, it may be difficult to remember. To further protect your information, create a different password for every online account.
2. Use a Strong Anti-Malware Tool
Another way cybercriminals steal information is through malicious software -- malware for short. These infectious programs include viruses, Trojan horses and other programs that take control of your computer or make note of what you type.
Malware is typically loaded onto a computer when the user opens an email or a file that's infected. Unfortunately, the amount of malware on the Internet continues to rise.
Every computer -- PC or Mac -- and mobile device you own should be protected with a strong anti-malware tool. Choose from the many effective anti-virus programs available today. It's essential to keep the one you use up-to-date and always running.
Add a second layer of protection by downloading a program such as Trusteer Rapport. It works with your existing anti-malware software and will alert you if you visit a fake or phishing website, as well as block any malware that attempts to intercept your personal information or password.
3. Help Protect Yourself from Phishing
Phishing is when scammers send you an email that looks like it's from a real business, such as your bank or credit card company, to trick you into giving up account numbers, passwords or other personal information. It's a common scam that every Internet user needs to watch out for.
Pay special attention to any email claiming to be a bill or a security alert. If anything looks odd -- misspelled words, your name not appearing on the email, links that don't appear to go to the right place, requests for you to "verify" account or personal information -- delete the message.
Never, ever open a suspicious attachment, a common vehicle for delivering malware. Call your bank, credit card company or other business directly if you think your personal information may have been compromised.
4. Keep Tabs on Your Credit Report
If your identity is stolen, your credit report will be one of the first places where it shows up, as identity thieves routinely attempt to open new credit card accounts or take out loans in their victims' names. Diligently keeping tabs on your credit report or using a credit monitoring service are ways to help protect your personal information from fraudulent use. The law entitles you to a free copy of your report every 12 months from each of the three credit reporting agencies -- Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. You can order these free reports at www.annualcreditreport.com.
5. Get Alerts When Something Seems Amiss
When a security breach does happen, crooks usually go straight for your debit or credit card, and you may not realize you've been victimized until you get your statement. To combat this type of fraud, use a credit card text messaging alert, which allows your financial institution to notify you if it detects suspicious activity. If you and your bank determine that your card was used for unauthorized charges, your bank should immediately block that card number from further use and send you a new one.
For Military Members
If you'll be away on deployment, you may want to take extra precautions. Consider placing an active-duty alert on your credit report, which requires lenders to take extra steps to verify your identity before granting credit. Just call one of the three credit bureaus to request the active-duty alert; the company you call is required to notify the other two.
Before deploying, contact your Judge Advocate General office for help with drafting a durable power of attorney. This document will allow a family member or another person you trust to manage your financial affairs, including responding to identity theft if it occurs during your absence.
"Because it can take months to erase the damage caused by identity theft, it's worth the effort to help protect your money and ID, and keep your good name intact," says Tom Shaw, vice president of enterprise financial crimes management at USAA.
"As cybercrime becomes more sophisticated and widespread, it's critical for individuals to understand that they could be at risk of being hacked or having their identity stolen, and that they need to take the appropriate actions to keep this from happening," explains Shaw.