Finance 101 10 Ways to Protect Your Personal Information Online

by Karen Gibbs | January 29, 2019

With headlines about data breaches and identity theft in the news practically every week, you may be wondering what more you can do to safeguard your finances. 

Measures to secure your finances may seem like a lot to remember, but focus on committing to them for the next few months. You’ll find that they’ll quickly become part of your routine.

1. Keep crucial numbers secure

Don’t print Social Security and driver’s license numbers on the checks you write, or jot down your PINs and passwords on cards, advises Corey Carlisle, executive director of the American Bankers Association (ABA) Foundation.

She also stresses that you should not give your credit or debit card and PIN to someone else to use. When you’re at an ATM or using a credit card terminal at a store, be sure to shield the view of your PIN. Also, look for signs a card reader has been tampered with, such as loose components or wires; that may mean the device has been fitted with a skimmer, which can record your personal information.

Finally, before donating or discarding an old computer, Gerri Walsh, senior vice president for investor education at the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), urges wiping the hard drive to remove all personal and financial files.

2. Create strong passwords — or pass phrases

What’s considered strong? Passwords that include lowercase and uppercase letters, numbers and symbols, if allowed, says Carlisle. Or try pass phrases, such as, [email protected]$h, suggests Walsh. They’re stronger and not as hard to remember. Whichever you choose, use different passwords for each account and change account passwords as well as the PIN of your ATM card regularly.

If you’re having trouble remembering all your passwords, you may want to use a password manager, Walsh says. For a nominal fee, a password manager randomly generates secure passwords for your accounts while allowing you to use a simple master password. Using strong encryption, it also protects PINs, CVV codes, credit card numbers and answers to security questions.

What’s considered strong? Passwords that include lowercase and uppercase letters, numbers and symbols.
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3. Be mindful about your mail habits

Do not mail bills, money or checks from your personal mailbox, Carlisle advises. Instead, use the post office or an official postal mailbox. And while you’re at it, collect your mail daily: Pre-approved credit cards, blank checks, bank statements and bills are like gold for thieves.

If you do notice a bank or billing statement is missing, report it immediately; a thief could have stolen your statement or changed the mailing address associated with your account. Consider signing up for paperless statements to reduce the risk of having them stolen in the mail.

4. Take a proactive approach to monitoring credit

Carlisle suggests using one email address exclusively for financial communications from banks, credit card companies and investment companies. Consider requesting and reviewing your credit report every four months; you may be able to accomplish this at no cost by visiting, and alternating between the three major credit bureaus Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.

5. Beware of fake websites

Always use a company’s official site, Carlisle cautions. Only use secure sites maintaining a URL that begins with https, not just http. Online fraudsters are known to mimic authentic websites with fake versions meant to fool users into inputting their credentials. And before you click on links within an email, make sure you know the sender.

6. Be internet savvy and avoid phishing scams

Avoid those “remember your password” functions on websites and browsers — and never log in to a financial site on a public network, Carlisle says. Likewise, do not make purchases on a public computer. Instead, says Walsh, call the retailer directly and make your purchase over the phone if you can’t wait till you get home.

Watch out for “phishing” scams, too — they can come via email, text or website. Common ones include scams that request money or personal information to claim a sweepstakes prize; those asking you to “update” personal information; or those claiming the sender’s website has been hacked. Never click on links or respond to such requests, Walsh warns. Call the company or institution instead. In addition, if you download a file from a website or email, be sure to run it through a security scan to detect viruses or malware.

African American man entering his credit card number into his laptop

7. Shred sensitive documents

Walsh suggests using a cross-shredder to destroy documents containing personal information, like account and Social Security numbers. If you don’t have a shredder, find out if your bank sponsors a shredding event.

8. Watch what you post on social media

Don’t put too many personal details out there, Carlisle says, as they can accumulate. Even seemingly harmless things like posting your alma mater or the name of the family pet may create a vulnerability (think of the common security questions used to verify your identity online).

9. Keep up with updates and protect your devices

Maintain anti-virus, anti-malware protection and set your computer to install updates automatically.

Measures like encrypting your email and enabling two-factor authentication — in which a one-time passcode is sent to a trusted device whenever you attempt to sign in to an online account — can also help shield your information from unwanted access.

Seemingly harmless things like posting your alma mater or the name of the family pet may create a vulnerability.
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10. Remember that stranger danger is real

Kids are told, “Don’t talk to strangers” — and the same advice holds true when it comes to your financial information. In many scams, victims are manipulated into willingly sharing sensitive information. Do not reveal personal or financial information to a stranger — whether by phone, email, mail or in person. And never wire money to someone who claims to be a friend or relative until you have personally contacted that individual to verify the story and request.

Karen Gibbs

is a freelance journalist, regular contributor to and content creator for brands such as Procter & Gamble and Bed Bath & Beyond.