Cybercrime is on the rise and we’re all exposed, without exception.
The FBI fielded 300,000 more complaints regarding suspected internet scams in 2020 than it did in 2019 — many designed specifically to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic and the stimulus money doled out by the federal government. On the dark web, Social Security numbers, passports and credit card information sell for as little as $1.
“Everyone’s information is available,” says cybersecurity expert Brett Johnson.
With all the non-stop news about cyber attacks on gas pipelines, meat plants and fertility clinics, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. But Johnson, a former cybercriminal who once ran a popular online identity theft ring, says being aware of these dangers isn’t enough. If you want to avoid becoming a victim, you need to take action.
“You can’t wait for someone to protect you,” he says. “You have to try to protect yourself.”
Step one: Think like a hacker
Johnson knows a thing or two about cyber attacks. Between 2002 and 2004, he ran ShadowCrew, credited as the first forum for cybercriminals to share tips on hacking, credit card fraud and various other scams.
These days, Johnson works as a cybersecurity consultant and public speaker, and is dedicated to helping people avoid falling victim to cybercrime.
His advice varies from person to person.
Someone who works in upper management at the top of the corporate ladder might get hit with sophisticated cyber attacks aimed at installing ransomware in their company’s network. (Often, this kind of attack paralyzes their company’s operations until they agree to pay a ransom.) Other victims might fall victim to identity theft or credit card fraud.
Understanding your place in this “cybercrime spectrum” will allow you to protect yourself accordingly, Johnson says.
Regardless, who gets hit first is not determined by algorithm or strategy, he says. It’s all ease of execution.
“It boils down to who is an easier victim,” he says. “Who is that lowest-hanging fruit?”
Step two: Protect yourself like one
The best deterrent for cybercrime is making a criminal think you’re not worth the effort. And Johnson says “you can be better protected than 90% of the people out there” with these three things:
Use a password manager
Most people use the same password, or variations of the same password, across their digital existence. So if just one of their credentials falls into the wrong hands, they can end up losing everything from their Gmail account to their online banking logins.
The solution, Johnson says, is a password manager. With the help of this software, you can generate a unique and strong password for every one of your online accounts — all stored behind an encrypted key known as a master password.
Monitor your credit
Sites like CreditKarma and Experian offer credit monitoring services that alert you of any suspicious activity on your accounts, or if your information has been compromised in a data breach. Some even notify you if your information has been spotted for sale on the dark web. Many credit monitoring services are free and offer premium features as an upgrade.
Freeze your credit
A credit freeze can be an effective tool even if you’ve never been a victim of identity theft, Johnson says.
It restricts access to your credit report, making it impossible for a criminal to open up a new line of credit under your name. Freezes don’t prevent unauthorized credit card purchases, and you’ll have to unfreeze your credit if you want to, say, open up a new credit card. But the process is completely free, and usually takes effect immediately.
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Step three: Treat social media like the threat it is
Posting an overabundance of information, photos, geo-tags and other data on your social media profiles gives bad guys some key resources to act against you.
Mother’s maiden name? There’s that selfie with a tag. Alma mater? Check out the pic from last year’s reunion. It’s all there.
“Criminals will go through every single bit of social media to find anything they can use to their advantage,” says Johnson. Carelessly volunteering all this data can become a big liability.
Be careful about what you post. Check your privacy settings, and make sure you’re not revealing your location, or using the same password to log into third-party websites. It’s also a good idea to go over your “friend” list with a fine-tooth comb, Johnson says.
“Do you actually know your 10,000 ‘friends?’” he says. ” If you don’t, why on earth are you sharing anything with them?”
Step four: Protect yourself offline too
New scams have emerged in light of the pandemic, looking to cheat people out of their stimulus money. Wide-scale uncertainty added to the problem, with many Americans lowering their guard due to work from home arrangements and other new responsibilities. And while many of the scams people fall victim to have been around for decades, they’re becoming more sophisticated every day.
“Spoof calls”— fake calls that appear to come from a police state, hospital or social security office — are a prime example. For most people, getting these kinds of calls forces them to react emotionally while proper reasoning takes a back seat.
Let’s say you get a call informing you that something terrible will happen unless you hand over some money. Maybe you’re being told that your last few child support payments have bounced, or that your grandson is in jail and needs bail money.
Even if you’re skeptical, simply engaging with these scammers can be harmful, Johnson says, since the person on the other end can use whatever you tell them to fill in the blanks on the profile they’re creating of you and your household. (Saying something as innocuous as “stop calling my house,” for instance, confirms that you’re on a residential phone that another family member might also use.)
The best advice, Johnson says, is to hang up the phone.
If you believe your personal information may have been compromised, use Money’s free search tool to check if your email address was exposed as part of a data breach.
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How to improve your credit score in 2021: Easy and effective tips
If you’ve ever wondered “What is my credit score?” it’s probably time to find out. Having a good credit score can make life a lot more affordable. If you’re about to buy a house or car, for example, the higher your credit score is, the lower your interest rate (and therefore, monthly cost) will probably be.
Your number may also be the deciding factor for whether or not you can get a loan and ultimately determine if you are even able to buy something you want or need.
So, yes, the goal is to have the highest possible credit score you can, but increasing the number doesn’t just happen overnight. There are important steps to take if you want to increase your score, and the sooner you start working on it, the better.
“If you’re trying to increase (your credit score) substantially to accomplish a goal, you’re really going to have to have as much lead time as possible,” said Thomas Nitzsche, director of media and brand at Money Management International, a nonprofit financial counseling and education provider that advises people on how to legally and ethically improve their credit score on their own.
If you have fair credit and you’re trying to improve the number for a house purchase, for instance, you’ll want to start working on it at least a year in advance, he explained to TMRW.
But even though that sounds like a long time away, you can (and should!) start doing things right now to bump that number up. Below, see seven things you should do — and not do — to help improve your credit score:
1. Review your credit report
The first thing you’ll want to do is pull up a copy of your current report so you know where you stand. You can get free reports from all three agencies — TransUnion, Experian, and Equifax — at annualcreditreport.com. Nitzsche said it’s important to take a moment and understand the financial snapshot of where you are today and where you want to be.
You’ll also want to take some time and look for any errors on your report, which could negatively impact your score. “If your name is misspelled, that’s not going to hurt your score,” he explained. “But if you see a late payment or missed payment (that’s in error), or maybe you have an account that should be reporting but isn’t, then that’s a problem and that will impact your score.”
If there is an error, you should dispute it and try to provide as much proof as you can.
One other thing: You can also ask a creditor to remove an issue if it’s been corrected (i.e., if you paid off a collection debt). Nitzsche said it doesn’t hurt to ask and the worst thing they could say is no.
2. Have good financial habits
“The biggest part of your credit score is payment history, so the most critical thing is never missing a due date,” Nitzsche said. Set up a monthly autopay or add all due dates to your calendar so you never miss a bill.
You can also achieve a higher score when you mix different types of accounts on your credit report. It may seem counterintuitive to get extra points for having debt in the form of student loans, mortgages and auto loans, but as long as you’re paying them off responsibly, it shows that you’re reliable.
3. Aim to use 30% or less of your credit at any given time
Know your credit card limit, and try not to use any more than 30% of that number each month, otherwise your score could lose points for too much credit utilization.
Another thing you can do is ask your bank to increase your limit. “That will give you more flexibility to spend more,” Nitzsche said. You could also pay it off twice a month to keep the balance low. But he does warn that you never know when the balance is going to be reported to the bureau. It can happen at any point during the month, so it might be the day after you make the payment or the day before. “You don’t necessarily want to use the card and pay it the next day because that doesn’t give the bureau the chance to know that you’re using it,” he said.
4. Avoid requests for new credit
If you’re looking to increase your score around the time you want to buy a house or car, you won’t want to open up a new line of credit, like a retail card, credit card or loan. That’s because “hard” credit inquiries like those can lower your score, and sometimes it comes down to a few points over whether you’re approved or what your rate will be, Nitzsche said.
“Soft” credit inquiries, like when an employer checks your credit or when you pull your own report, won’t affect your score.
5. Keep all accounts open, even ones you don’t use anymore
Even if you don’t use that credit card from college, it’s a good idea to just keep it open because closing it could hurt your score. Nitzsche explained that you’ll be dinged some points for each account that is closed. If you want or need to mentally break up with a card, just cut it up instead.
6. Build your credit if needed
If you haven’t established credit yet, you might not even exist … in the credit report space, that is! “If someone has never fallen in delinquency on any subscriptions or utilities or never had collections on anything and they have not utilized credit cards or loans in the past seven to 10 years, they may not have a credit profile at all,” Nitzsche said. “That presents a challenge when you want to buy a home.”
If this sounds familiar, you may have to get a secured credit card where you put down a deposit, he advised. “You still have to make payments and use it responsibly. Not all banks offer them but you can usually check with your local bank or credit union.”
7. Reach out for help
There are many apps and credit-monitoring services that can help you stay on top of your credit score. You could also reach out to a professional credit counselor who can help you navigate your specific situation. (Here’s a good resource about finding a reputable service.)
One last thing: Nitzsche warned that everyone should beware of credit repair scams that claim to be able to increase credit scores for an advance fee to get accurate negative information removed (even temporarily) from credit reports.
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