December is National Identity Theft Prevention & Awareness Month

As the joy of the holiday season fast approaches, we should bear in mind two elements that could turn happiness into despair. While we've heard much about the supply chain issues (order as early as you can), another culprit is waiting in the wings (or in your computer, more accurately) to harm you. I'm referring to identity theft, and unsurprisingly, December is National Identity Theft Prevention & Awareness Month.

Millions of us will be relying on online purchases during the holiday season. Online shopping will increase because of the coronavirus and a greater reluctance to shop indoors. Digital criminals - and that's precisely what they are - steal our most valuable personal data, from Social Security numbers and credit cards, to financial records and private information. 

And the cost against the ordinary citizen is enormous.

About $13 billion in losses resulted from "traditional identity fraud," by people who illegally gained access to consumers' identity, according to the 2021 Identity Fraud Study by Javelin Strategy & Research. The report identified phishing emails and robocalls as the most frequent scams, resulting in an average loss of $1,100.

Some computer experts maintain that it's not a question of “if” your personal data will be compromised but “when.”

Be cautious about how you handle personal data, especially during the holiday season when shopping  and other activities overwhelm us.

I turned to local IT expert Anthony Mongeluzo, president of PCS, for a few simple tips that will keep your data safer and you less vulnerable.

They include:

Rule No. 1. Invest in a reliable firewall and well-known antivirus protection. Then, test monthly to ensure they work. This is inexpensive but a must. If there is Rule No. 1 in cybersecurity, this is it. 

Don't let phishing emails trick you. Hackers will send you an email and pretend that you didn't pay your credit card or maybe you missed a home delivery. Some claim they have negative information about you. These are phishing scams, and DON’T reply to the email. If you're unsure, call a friend who is technology savvy.

Password protection. Don't use the same password for all your sites. Make passwords long and as nonsensical as possible. The best protection  is two-step authentication. You will receive a code before actually entering the site you want. Yes, it requires a few irritating extra seconds, but it's a valuable layer of protection.

It's my brother's flash drive. So? Be cautious about using anyone's flash drive. Never use one until you've scanned it to ensure that it's virus-free. 

Hot spot convenience. Avoid public Wi-Fi. Public Wi-Fi allows any bad actor to hack into your connection while you're sipping that morning coffee. 

Review credit card and bank statements. Carefully check all statements to ensure there are no unauthorized charges. If one pops up, contact the bank or credit card company immediately. 

Hard drive safeguards. Encrypt your hard drive. Newer operating systems offer default encryption, so it’s easy. Luckily, the latest hard drives won't slow down your computer, and if someone steals your laptop — your office — it'll make it more difficult to tamper with your data. 

A fundamental rule for protecting yourself from identity theft is to remain aware and vigilant. If something appears to be  suspicious or unusual, don’t share personal data, step away, and get someone with expertise that can help.

That’s my take, what’s yours?