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How to protect yourself against identity theft

The recent arrest of a man who may have stolen information from 149 RFCU customers highlights the need to keep an eye on your personal information.

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — The recent arrest of a man accused for trafficking stolen identities, criminal tampering with encoded data fraud is a reminder of the importance of protecting your personal and financial information.

Allen Devon Rutledge is accused of stealing information from 149 Redstone Federal Credit Union members. He was able to steal more than $100,000 total. According to Huntsville police, at the time of his arrest, 78 fraudulent cards were found on him or in his car.

White-collar crimes are on the rise and one of the reasons why is interesting.

"With white-collar crimes, there's, you know, low risk and high reward, with violent crimes you typically get a higher risk with lower reward," said Cyber and Financial Crimes Supervisor at Huntsville Police Department, Sgt. Joe Kennington.

Alongside these risk factors, ease of use and access to technology have also played a part.

More people know what they are doing behind a computer screen and they know there's a less likely chance that they will get caught.

But there are some things you can do to help protect your identity.

For starters, always verify that you are sending money or purchasing something from a real, legit person or business.

If it feels wrong, it probably is.

"I would verify who it is, if you don't know who it is, if you have any kind of gut feeling that it's not right, I would turn them away," said Kennington.

You should also be wary of the personal information you post online. Sharing very personal things online could make you more vulnerable to scams.

Because they know more about you, they know how to get to you.

"You know, the more you use your personal information online, on social media, anywhere, the more likely it is to be, you know, stolen," said Kennington.

Lastly, Kennington made it very clear, that one thing people should never do is purchase a gift card to make a purchase.

Scammers and illegitimate companies may try to convince people that sending money or purchasing something via gift card is safe, but it's really just a way to smudge the paper trail and make it harder to follow.

"There is no legitimate company, there is no legitimate employer, no one will ask you to do that," said Kennington.

Experian, one of the major credit bureaus, has tips for protecting your self from identity theft and recognizing if it's happened. Keep reading:

How to Recognize Signs of Identity Theft

Identity theft can affect you in many ways, and there are various ways to identify it. Knowing the warning signs that signal fraud is developing—or is happening already—can help you more quickly take action to stop it. Here's what to look out for:

  • You no longer get your household bills in the mail. An absence of bills in the mail could mean your personal data has been compromised, and the identity thief has changed your billing address to try to keep you from seeing your statements.
  • You've been turned down for a loan or credit card. If you're rejected for credit but have a solid credit history, you might have been targeted by an identity thief. If you're approved for a loan or credit but at higher interest rates than you expect, that's also a sign you may have been victimized by identity theft. Monitoring your credit can help prevent this.
  • You're being billed for items you didn't purchase. If you receive an invoice for a purchase you don't recognize, or you're being billed for overdue payments for credit accounts you don't own, that's a sign your identity's been compromised.
  • Your financial accounts show charges you don't recognize. If your bank, credit card or other financial account show unauthorized transactions, those accounts may have been breached.
  • Your tax return was rejected. If you filed your tax returns and received a rejection notice from the IRS due to a duplicate return, that could indicate a return has already been fraudulently filed in your name.
  • Small test charges appear on your credit card statement. It's common practice for identity thieves to "test" that a stolen card is still active by making low-cost purchases of under $5. If the credit card is approved, the fraudster knows that the path is clear for larger transactions.
  • Your creditors alert you to suspicious activity. You may get a call or text from a company you do business with that tells you fraudulent activity has been detected. For instance, the company that issued one of your credit cards might tell you a suspicious transaction has been attempted with your card. Take care of the immediate issue, and take steps to prevent it from happening again.

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Ways to Protect Yourself From Identity Theft

To better protect your personal data against identity thieves, it's important to be proactive about your approach. Ultimately, the goal is to build as many effective barriers as you can, which can discourage identity thieves from trying to victimize you.

Start that process with these eight steps:

Password-Protect Your Devices

The majority of Americans (52%) don't password-protect their mobile devices, according to a study by cybersecurity firm Kaspersky Labs.

Not having a password on your smartphone or tablet is akin to leaving your home with the door wide open. If the device falls into the wrong hands, your email, financial accounts and other private data stored on the phone will be easily accessible.

Use a Password Manager

Using the same password for all of your electronic devices and key financial accounts is a major security risk. If you do, a fraudster only has to figure out a single password to gain access to the rest of your accounts.

A good way to stop an identity thief from accessing your data is to mix up your passwords, and use a unique one for every account. Don't include your name in any passwords or your birthday, and change your password anytime you suspect an account is compromised.

Of course, it's virtually impossible to remember a unique password for every account you have. To make things easier, you can use a password manager such as LastPass or 1Password to securely store your account information without requiring you to remember all of your login credentials.

Watch Out for Phishing Attempts

Avoid clicking on any suspicious-looking links in emails or text messages. In a cyber attack called phishing, identity thieves use emails and websites that look like they're coming from your bank, credit card company, mortgage lender or other financial institution to trick you into entering your account information or other private data.

These emails may even ask you to open an attachment that installs harmful malware on your device.

If you suspect a link isn't legitimate, don't click on it, and never type in your username or password on an unfamiliar login screen. Never download an email attachment unless you know what it is.

Never Give Out Personal Information Over the Phone

Fraudsters may also regularly pose as a bank or credit card company employee over the phone, but doing so should be a dead giveaway. The fact is, no legitimate organization will call and ask you for personal information—like a bank or credit card PIN number or Social Security number.

If you suspect a call is potentially legitimate, ask for the caller's credentials, hang up, and contact the organization using the phone number listed on your financial institution's bank statements. Also, note that the IRS won't contact you by phone out of the blue, and will typically send taxpayer requests and information via postal mail.

Regularly Check Your Credit Reports

Credit reports include the activity on the financial accounts in your name, including their last-reported balances. As a result, a good way to spot discrepancies is to check your credit report regularly. If you can spot something suspicious early, such as an unfamiliar account on your report, you can take action to address it more quickly and stop the situation from getting worse.

You can get a free credit report from each of the credit bureaus by visiting AnnualCreditReport.com. You can also get a copy of your credit report and view your credit scores for free through Experian.

Protect Your Personal Documents

Physical documents can present a security risk if not properly looked after. These papers may include information that would prove useful to identity thieves, including your Social Security number, as well as information about your bank accounts. You can protect yourself in a few ways.

Avoid leaving mail in your mailbox as they are a frequent target of identity thieves. If you're going out of town, ask a trusted neighbor to pick up your mail or request a mail hold until you get back. You might consider limiting how much sensitive paper mail you receive in the first place by signing up for electronic statements with your financial accounts.

Identity thieves may also dig through your trash to get your information. When disposing of physical private records and statements that include any personal and/or financial data, it's a good idea to destroy it—you can usually find a good shredder for cheap.

Finally, you should try to avoid leaving a paper trail of ATM, credit card or retail receipts behind. Identity thieves can use receipts to help piece together your personal data, so hold on to receipts and throw them away or shred them when you get home.

Limit Your Exposure

It's a good idea to limit the number of credit cards you carry in your wallet, so if it's stolen, you can minimize the impact.

Additionally, avoid carrying your Social Security card on your person—the theft of a Social Security number is an ID thief's gateway to more financial accounts, and thus must be protected at all costs.