Tips on how to protect yourself from ID theft, scams

By Jim Newell
Special to the Clarkston News

(This is the second of a two-part series.)
OAKLAND COUNTY — Whether it’s from a phone call, text message or on a personal computer, scammers and identity thieves are finding new and increasingly more convincing ways to cheat people out of their hard-earned money.
Electronic fraud (or internet fraud) can take many forms, with thieves representing a “legitimate” company to get you to give them access to your devices, bank accounts and other personal information.
Whether over the phone or through your computer or tablet, thieves will tell you that you owe money; or through text messages that ask you to click on a link; or locking up your computer and pretending to be Microsoft in order to get victims to grant them access to fix the problem.
The thieves can then access any personal information stored on your computer – account numbers or passwords, for example.
Lt. Darren Ofiara is commander of the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office Orion Township Substation and spent five years in the Cyber Crimes Unit (CCU).
“If you get scammed (or your ID is stolen), the first thing to do is contact the companies and let them know and lock your accounts. Contact us to let us know. Document anything that’s occurred, any phone numbers or websites that you were on, copy and paste it so you have it for future use so we can investigate,” Ofiara said.
Identity theft is when someone steals your personal information and then impersonates you for nefarious reasons, often to open up accounts in your name, get access to your existing accounts or to sell your information to others.
“If thieves steal your identity that’s extremely difficult because those are sold on the black market. And they’re sold in blocks, so your name is in a block of numbers,” Ofiara said. “Technology is made to help us but sometimes it hurts us.”
One recent identity theft situation that is plaguing Oakland County is the Bank of America scam where thieves are getting access to customers’ accounts. And if the thieves are overseas, it could be difficult to track them down.
“It is extremely hard (to find them). A good criminal makes it very difficult for us to find them. Technology today is not made to help law enforcement,” Ofiara said. “If we can confirm it was a fraud, normally the banks will make you whole again. You don’t often lose money if it comes to a bank fraud. Now your identity theft, that’s something completely different.”
So, what are the steps you can take to protect yourself from becoming a victim?

  • Make the most difficult password you can remember using a combination of letters, numbers and special characters. Use phrases, or the first letter of phrases, that no one else will suspect. Regularly change your passwords.
  • Don’t use the same password for more than one account.
    “If someone hacks your computer and you’re using the same password for everything they will check your internet history, they will check the sites you’ve visited and if they put a tracker on your computer they will then hit all of your accounts and it becomes a cascade event,” Ofiara said. “If criminals do get access to your account, they can lock you out, hold it for ransom or take all of your money.”
  • Use an online password manager to store passwords for all of your accounts. That way you only have to remember one password. Don’t save passwords in a list on your personal devices.
  • Write down your passwords.
    “They used to say never write down your passwords. There is now a trend of going back to writing down your passwords and keeping them in a secure spot: a safe, a bank safety deposit box,” Ofiara said.
    “There are two different minds of thought on this. I cannot say which one is better, officially. But you have to have it in the back of your head that if something goes bad (online) and you lose everything, at least you have a hard copy. But if you have a hard copy and your house burns down…there is no easy answer other than having a third copy in a safety deposit box.”
  • Always use a dual authentication system: a password login into an account and then have the company send a verification to another device with a code for you to enter.
  • Make sure the software on your computer and phone are up-to-date.
  • Use a program that protects your devices from spyware and malware.
  • Check your personal accounts regularly for suspicious activity. Check credit reporting bureaus like Equifax, Experian and TransUnion to see if there is suspicious activity under your name.
  • Always verify who’s contacting you: If a legitimate company contacts you, you can call them back. If you did not initiate the call, email or text it’s okay to be suspicious. Any legitimate company will give you time to verify their contact information and then call them.
    “Just say, ‘Hey, I didn’t expect this, I’m not comfortable with this. Am I able to call your help department back on my own?’” Ofiara said.
  • If someone contacts you and demands payment right then – especially demanding payment in bitcoin or prepaid gift cards – it’s a scam.
    “Criminals want the easiest crime. They don’t want to be caught. There’s more opportunity to be caught if you break into someone’s house than compared to stealing their identity,” Ofiara said. “So, if you’re writing down your passwords and keeping it hidden and locked up in your house, odds are that fewer people are going to break into your house than sell your information online.”
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