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Friday, December 13, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Fighting ID theft: Complex passwords, credit freezes can help stop criminals from stealing your ID

Kathy Fleming, 77, who was the victim of identity theft, recently took an AARP seminar called “Taking Charge of Your Digital Security.” (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Kathy Fleming, 77, who was the victim of identity theft, recently took an AARP seminar called “Taking Charge of Your Digital Security.” (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Criminals often steal personal identity information because it’s worth money across the internet.

That’s one lesson learned by Kathy Fleming, 77, at a June 14 seminar on “Taking Charge of Your Digital Security.” AARP Washington held the event for about 200 people in Spokane Valley.

Although Fleming is careful when she uses her computer and guards her credit, she’s been the victim of identity theft more than once.

“Your information is currency,” said Fleming, a local AARP chapter member. “I’ve been hit multiple times, but it never dawned on me that my information is a form of currency.

“That’s what it is for people who buy and sell it; they can sell a social security number and name for $3 on the dark web.”

The dark web is part of the internet used for illegal transactions that’s not accessible to ordinary browsers.

Fleming said the seminar had two other takeaways: Do a credit freeze and use complex, varied passwords through a password manager service, which offers to generate and store a different password for each of a user’s online accounts.

A credit freeze, also known as a security freeze, lets consumers restrict access to a credit report among the three major reporting agencies. The step makes it more difficult for identity thieves to open new accounts because most creditors need to see a credit report before approval.

In recent years, Fleming said she was hit by personal record data breaches at Target, Rosauers and the consumer credit reporting agency Experian.

About a year and a half ago, someone used PayPal to take $2,000 out of her checking account.

Her credit union quickly investigated the incident and returned the money. “The best part is I don’t have a PayPal account,” she said. “The credit union is insured, so I did get my $2,000 back.”

At a separate time, she got a call when someone in Las Vegas tried to buy a car using her credit. Another person had applied to get a credit card in her name from retailer Victoria’s Secret.

“One of the best things I learned at the seminar is you don’t have to wait until you’re victimized and file the police report to do a credit freeze,” she said.

Thanks to a new law, applying for a credit freeze became free in Washington state as of June 6. Starting this fall, the big three credit reporting agencies – Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion – will be required to let people freeze a credit file for free.

Congress mandated free freezes in the wake of consumer outrage over the Equifax breach last September exposing the personal information of more than 146 million Americans.

The free-freeze provision was included in a banking deregulation bill signed by President Donald Trump last month that rolled back some of the reforms put into place by the Dodd-Frank Act in 2010 after the Great Recession.

Doug Shadel, AARP state director, told seminar attendees that after a credit freeze is in place, people can lift it if they need to buy a car or get a loan. However, they’ll need to provide the special pin number given when the freeze was put in place.

“They give you a really long pin number, and you can’t lose it,” Shadel said.

Shadel also promotes using different, complex passwords and closely monitoring financial accounts.

“Criminals are lazy,” he said. “Avoid being the low-hanging fruit.”

A Microsoft online safety and security expert, Jeff Lilleskare, told people at the seminar about fake pop-up screens, and how they can look like authentic security notices.

Even clicking on an apparent red exit box can be risky, Lilleskare said. He suggested going to the computer browser to close any pop-ups.

“No matter how much technology knowledge you have, you can be sucked into the moment,” he said. “Do your updates and let them happen automatically.”

According to consumer fraud experts, consumers should take three major steps to protect their personal information: Set up and monitor online banking and checking accounts often, freeze credit and strengthen online passwords and privacy settings.

However, a recent state AARP survey indicates Washington state consumers are falling behind in the battle to protect their digital identities.

The survey of Washington online users ages 18 and older showed a lack of awareness of online dangers. It found that 6 in 10 Washington adults failed a quiz testing their “Digital Identity IQ.”

Only half of respondents, or 53 percent, knew that purchasing ID theft monitoring services doesn’t prevent thieves from stealing identity. Most ID theft monitoring services will notify individuals if someone is attempting to open new credit in their name, but that doesn’t prevent it.

Among those surveyed, 6 in 10 people said that given the number of data breaches over the past five years, they feel it’s inevitable that criminals will use their stolen identity to exploit their credit, despite attempts to block it.

About 45 percent of respondents reported using the same password for more than one online account. Younger adults are more likely to report doing this than seniors, with the age group 18-49 at nearly 50 percent compared with 65 and older at 33 percent.

AARP said fewer than 14 percent of the adults overall reported having ever ordered a security freeze on their credit.

Nearly half of respondents hadn’t set up online access to some or any of their bank or credit card accounts, citing fears their personal information will get stolen.

“It’s ironic and unfortunate that fear and mistrust of the internet is actually putting people in greater danger that their personal information will be stolen and used by ID thieves,” Shadel said.

“Crooks have told us that people without online accounts are the perfect targets. It allows the criminals to set up online access themselves, and to even set passwords and identifying information locking people out of their own accounts.”

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