Protecting the keys to your accounts

Your Social Security number, your date of birth, your account numbers, your passwords, your mailing address: This information is equivalent to a financial set of keys.

The information gives you access to your existing financial accounts, your government records and benefits, your credit reports and other sensitive, valuable information. By verifying your identity, this information allows you to carry out transactions and open new accounts at your convenience.

Like any set of keys, you never want them to fall into the wrong hands. An identity thief can hurt you in a number of ways — running up charges on your credit cards, writing bad checks, transferring funds from your existing accounts, even opening new credit accounts in your name.

You may have some bad habits that leave your sensitive information vulnerable to thieves. Luckily, there are some easy fixes for properly safeguarding your information. Here are a few:

The habit: Leaving sensitive information out in the open.

It could be that you toss out old bills and other sensitive documents without giving them a second thought. But once you toss it out, that information becomes fair game to anyone who comes across it.

The solution: Shred your old documents, and use a file cabinet that locks.

Keep a shredder by your desk and destroy your sensitive documents as soon as you’re ready to throw them out. As an extra precaution, store your important files and your checkbook in a locked file cabinet or safe. If a thief ever breaks into your home, he or she will have a more difficult time getting to your valuable documents.

The habit: Choosing commonly used or easy-to-guess passwords.

We now conduct much of our business with our personal finances online. The Internet eliminates distance, for better or for worse, a nd your online accounts are a treasure trove of information to enterprising thieves. All they need is one tiny bit of information: your password.Both scams and software used for illegally obtaining your passwords have gotten increasingly sophisticated. If you use the same password for multiple accounts, you’re even more vulnerable. It’ll take one security breach at one website to get the login information for your other accounts.

The solution: Change your passwords often, use different passwords for each account and create long, complex passwords.

The best way to protect yourself is to stay one step ahead of the game. Start a list of all of the websites that require your login information, and set a schedule for changing them periodically. Make sure that your most critical accounts have their own unique passwords — these sites also tend to have their own additional safeguards.

The more complicated and lengthy your passwords are, the safer they’ll be. Use a combination of upper-case letters, lower-c ase letters, numbers and special characters. Avoid using words or common phrases. Both people and software programs can guess those easily enough.

The information that you’re safeguarding is worth the extra effort. The damage that fraud causes to your finances can be costly to repair, both in terms of time and money. With preventative measures in place, you can sleep soundly.

Michael Camacho is president and chief executive officer of Personal Finance Center. He has more than 19 years experience in retail banking and with financial institutions in Guam and Hawaii. You can email him at moneymattersguam@yahoo.com.

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