Your Email May Be the Key to Stealing Your Life

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 85% of identity theft incidents involved the fraudulent use of existing account information (Harrell & Langton, 2013). It is the is the fastest growing type of fraud.

We have all been told to keep our passwords tightly held, difficult to guess and full of combinations of numbers, letters and characters. If we do not, we run the risk of being hacked. So how does this protect us?

Think about how many Internet based accounts you have: a bank account, credit card, utility accounts, shopping accounts such as Amazon, EBay or GroupOn. The list is very large. All of those accounts require you to use an email to sign-up or login. Many people have separate email accounts for different types of transactions, i.e. “junk mail,” versus “real mail,” accounts. So, if their information is compromised, not everything will be available to the identity thieves, who typically pay $1 to $8 for their information.

If a hacker does gain access to your email, they also gain access to your statements, receipts, and bills.  From there they can find where you shop, your account numbers and much more. They can visit those accounts found in your email and access your profile simply by resetting your password.

How do thieves gain access to your email? The simplest answer is inadequate passwords. Your birthday, spouse or child’s birthday, pet name, anniversaries – are all items very easy for us to remember, but also easy for a hacker to break.

Another access point may be your friend or family member who does not have a secure account. A hacker can enter their account and send emails to all of their contacts. If one person clicks on the email, the hacker has their next victim.

So, what can you do? Again, passwords are critical. Many people use password storage software such as Lastpass  or RoboForm to securely store their passwords. If you are uncomfortable having that information online (seems counterintuitive) you can always make a password protected spreadsheet on your computer. There is also a software called Keepass that stores passwords offline. The offline storage may present a problem if you are not using the computer where that information is stored.

Another password idea is using a mnemonic device and random numbers to generate a password. For instance, at 8:36 a.m., Mary Had a little Lamb would turn into MHalL0836 if no special characters were allowed or, perhaps, *MHalL0836@ if special characters are allowed. You can also mix this up. Interchange letters and numbers to make it even more difficult to hack. Mnemonic devices can also help you remember what you selected.

Some additional tips include:

  • Use different passwords for different accounts. They should not be the same.
  • Do not log into email, financial or social media accounts when using public Wi-fi
  • If you use a public computer to log into your accounts, be sure to log out and close the browser when you are finished.
  • At home, be sure to have an antivirus software installed on your computer and use a firewall. There are some free versions and others you can download for a nominal fee.
  • Install antivirus software on your Smartphone. Many people skip this step, thinking that phones do not get hacked. Just remember a year or so ago, celebrities’ iPhone accounts were hacked and personal pictures were shared all over the Internet.

Remember, the reason for protecting your accounts is not to make life more difficult. The goal is to keep your accounts protected and save yourself the time and money involved in correcting a case of identity theft. Get started today and visit the Federal Trade Commission's website for more tips on protecting yourself.

Harrell, E. & Langton, L. (December 10, 2013). Victims of Identity Theft. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Retrieved June 10, 2015. From www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=4821.