A new Harris Poll for the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA), which called 1,006 U.S. adults for the report, shows interesting statistics regarding American adults’ attitudes and fears about identity theft and financial loss as a result of cyber intrusions. The poll’s conclusion is that 48 percent of U.S. adults believe that identity theft will cause them financial loss in the next year, and 81 percent are concerned that businesses are unable to safeguard their personal and financial information—40 percent of those individuals are either extremely or very concerned about that possibility.

One of the statistics cited by the poll is that 145 million U.S. adults were hit with malware, viruses, spyware, or phishing schemes in 2017. This is not a surprising statistic since another reported and very scary statistic, is that one million pieces of new malware are let loose on the Internet by fraudsters every day. With these staggering statistics, what are we to do to fight back and protect ourselves from identity theft and financial fraud?

One of the ways to determine whether you have been a victim of identity theft is to obtain a copy of your credit report. You can get a  free copy of your credit report once a year from each of the credit reporting agencies. Although this is a pretty well-known tip, the poll shows that 35 percent of U.S. adults have never checked their credit report.

The good news is that because individuals are becoming more educated about cyber-crime, intrusions, data breaches, identity theft and fraud, many are doing something to protect themselves. The poll found that 81 percent of Americans said they’ve changed their behavior to respond to these threats. Those changes include self-monitoring of credit and debit card accounts for fraudulent activity (56 percent), using cash and/or checks more often (43 percent), or choosing to shop at locally owned stores more often instead of national retailers (40 percent).

The poll further states that “…26 percent of Americans said they have reduced their online presence, either turning off social media or visiting fewer websites because of concerns about data security…20 percent have signed up for additional fraud detection or credit monitoring. Roughly 11 percent report they are switching their shopping to different national stores because of concern about data breaches, 11 percent have placed a freeze on their credit, or are shopping online more often, because they feel like it is safer, and 5 percent said they use alternative forms of currency.” Although these statistics are small, they are an interesting message to national retail chains.

All of these changing behaviors are positive, and important for good cyber hygiene.

The AICPA’s National CPA Financial Literacy Commission offers the following tips to help Americans prevent and mitigate the effects of identity theft, although these are not new, they are worth repeating:

  • Monitor your credit report & set protections. You can request a free credit report from the three major credit reporting agencies once a year, including TransUnion, Equifax and Experian. Additionally, some monitoring services allow you unlimited access to your credit information year-round. These services are there to help you spot inaccuracies, potential fraud and more on your credit report. This should also be done for children. Theft of a child’s ID may go undetected for many years such that by the time they are adults, damage has already been done.
  • Don’t provide your Social Security number unless it’s necessary. A space for it on a form doesn’t necessarily mean that it is required. For example, your doctor’s office may use a unique number issued by your insurance company to enter your claim but their form may have a space for SSN anyway. Don’t be afraid to ask if they really need it.
  • Make sure your Wi-Fi network at home is secured with a password. A skilled data thief can access information on an unsecured network. Additionally, when away from home, avoid providing credit card or other personal information on unsecured Wi-Fi networks like those in airports or coffee shops.
  • Don’t provide personal information in response to any unsolicited communication. Even if the caller, text or email claims to be from a bank or credit card company needing to “verify” your account to “prevent fraud.” If in doubt, call the number on your bank statement or the back of your credit card.
  • What to do if it happens? Act quickly to limit the damage. Call your credit card company and report it to them. They will close your card and issue a new one. File a police report to ensure that you are covered for any damages that you may incur. If your federal return is affected, call the IRS at 800-908-4490 and file Form 14039 Identity Theft Affidavit.