By Mike Stanley

Finding news of the latest data breach, scam, or other form of identity theft is never hard. The truth is that even with technological advances aimed at stemming the tide of such crimes, identity theft remains a pervasive problem that offers few signs of letting up.

A record 15.4 million Americans fell victim to some form of identity theft in 2016, a rise of 16 percent from 2015, according to the 2017 Identity Fraud Study by Javelin Strategy & Research. That represents 6.15 percent of all U.S. consumers, a staggering number by any measure.

Public and private programs have been implemented to help battle the issue. But identity theft is very much a moving target — whether it be a stolen Social Security number to obtain a fraudulent loan or assuming one’s identity on social media — there is no easy solution.

The good news is that there are ways to protect yourself that are more effective than ever before, and in most cases you won’t have to pay a thing. Limiting your risk comes down to three basic principles: protect, monitor, and react.

Start with measures you can take to protect yourself, which is your first and most effective line of defense:

• Make a habit of checking all your credit reports — everyone is entitled to a free annual credit report from each bureau — to ensure they are syncing up.

• Consider proactive identity monitoring with services such as Civic, or an identity theft protection service, such as LifeLock, IdentityHawk, or CheckMySSN.com .

• Secure sensitive documents, really any document that includes personal information, and shred anything you do not need.

• Secure Internet-connected electronic devices with virus protection software, and keep your software up to date.

• Create unique passwords with a combination of letters, numbers, and symbols, and change them on a regular basis. Use a password management tool or password-protected spreadsheet to secure them.

• Never click on unfamiliar links. Use known websites from established companies and be wary of new friends or relatives who suddenly reach out on social media.

• When possible, avoid using checks, which are rife with personal information. Instead, use your financial institution’s bill pay service or other automated options.

Even taking those precautions does not eliminate the risk, which means everyone should use tools to monitor their identity. Free tools such as automated account alerts, making you aware of all account transactions, are offered at many financial institutions. Regularly review your bills and account information, and avoid paper statements by opting for electronic statements, when possible.

If you do find an irregularity, report it immediately. The identitytheft.gov and usa.gov/identity-theft sites can walk you through the process. And if you’re notified of a security breach that involved your personal information, take advantage of any protection program that is offered. The quicker the reaction, the easier it is to mitigate any damage, and most institutions or businesses won’t hold you liable after they know that an ID theft has occurred.

If a breach does occur, it is helpful to know your rights. Your liability often depends on the type of fraud perpetrated and whether you’ve followed the terms and conditions of the product you’re using. But consumer protections are in place that either limit your losses or give you the opportunity to dispute losses, or both. These protections vary by payment system, but all companies are required to disclose your potential liability should fraud occur.

— Mike Stanley is the Central Oregon Area Manager of SELCO Community Credit Union.

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