Back in May, I used this space to talk to you about the data breach at the IRS. In the blog, I cautioned you to be careful about giving out personal information. One of the scary aspects of the IRS data breach is that the criminals had access to personal information of individual taxpayers. How could they obtain this information? Read on to find out some simple, unsophisticated ways this can happen and also learn how you can protect your personal information.

Social media accounts

Almost everyone has a social media account such as Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter. These social media forums allow us to keep in contact with folks we may not see very often. However, criminals can easily obtain a lot of information about you from these accounts. Depending on how much information you put on your account, just about anyone has access to at least the following information:

  • Your name.
  • Where you live.
  • Your birthdate.
  • Where you are from.
  • Who your relatives are.
  • Where you went to school.
  • What you look like.
  • What you family looks like.
  • When you are going on vacation and where.

Now think about the security questions for your bank or other financial institution:

  • Mother’s maiden name.
  • Where you were born.
  • Your high school mascot.

A criminal can easily obtain the answers to your security questions simply from the information you posted on Facebook. For example, if my daughter shows me on her account as her mother and I list my maiden name on my account, the criminal now has the answer to her security question. Likewise, if I list where I am from and my birthdate, the criminal could easily find out where I was born — another security question.

Going further, a criminal could use your personal information to obtain a credit card in your name without your knowledge. In addition, if you post when you are going on vacation and/or post pictures while you are gone, your home is an easy target for burglary.

To protect yourself, only list the very basic information on your social media profile. Before you post any information, ask yourself this question: Would I give this information to a stranger I just met? If the answer is no, you may not want to post it. Set your privacy settings to the highest possible to protect the information you post. Revisit those privacy settings after every program update to make sure your personal information is still protected.

And don’t tell the world when you are on vacation. Wait to post those pictures until you return from your trip.

Your mailbox

Your incoming mail can provide a criminal with a wealth of information — credit card account numbers, retirement account information, and utility bills to name a few. Your outgoing mail could have even more information, particularly if you pay bills by check and put the envelopes in your mailbox with the flag up. There goes your bank account!

For your protection, sign up for electronic statements, especially for your bank and other financial institution accounts and your retirement accounts. Also sign up for automatic payments of all your regular monthly bills. If you must mail a check, deposit the envelope in a post office drop box – don’t put it in your mailbox.

Your trash

Be careful what you throw away. Even unsolicited mail could compromise your financial health. Those credit card offers you toss in the trash could be used to obtain credit in your name. All the criminal would need to do is change the address and you won’t know anything about it. Shred all documents that have any personal information.

The bottom line is, be extra careful with your personal information. Think about who could access the information before you give it away.

Judith Ackland has more than 26 years of experience in accountancy and financial planning, including seventeen years as a CFO of a diverse business. She started Crystal Financial in 2010 to help a wide array of individuals, families, and business owners better understand their finances and how good financial management could help them achieve their goals. Judith has an MA in Professional Accountancy from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln as well as a Certified Public Accountant Certificate and a Certified Financial Planner designation.

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