Protecting Your Family Against Digital and Identity Theft

Carolyn StewartBy Carolyn Stewart|July 23, 2019|5 Minutes

My 24-year-old graduate-student son recently had a terrible experience that offers many lessons to college-aged students and their parents. As a nice, smart kid who typically thinks the best of people, he naively put himself into a situation (yes, he does admit he made a stupid choice) where his cell phone, credit cards and keys were stolen. The thief then managed to hack into his phone and into the banking app on his cell phone and drain his bank account!

As a parent 6,000 miles away, this was a nightmare scenario…. a son in a large city without access to cash, fear that his social security number might have been compromised, police who opted not to pursue this fraud case because they had more pressing issues, and a banking institution that refused to freeze his bank account after the theft and before the account was drained.

After many, many hours spent helping my son manage the results of the situation, we as a family have learned some big lessons about protecting family members against identity theft and digital theft in today’s world:

1. DO NOT share any login or password information by text or email…. ever! Do this over the phone.

2. Make sure a parent has every family member’s Apple ID login info, bank login info, and copies of current credit cards (in a secure place). That way, someone can lock phones and initiate freezes immediately in the event a family member is robbed or hacked, because time is of the essence.

3. Use a Password Manager. There are many programs out there, some with fees and some free, with a wide variety of features. The key is to choose one that works for you and use it consistently!

4. Make sure to keep anything with a social security number secure and NOT in your wallet (nor in a folder on your desk)! Take a look at what’s in your wallet and take out any credit cards, IDs or other things you don’t use regularly. And remember that your liability for a stolen debit card is greater than the liability for a stolen credit card, so report the theft or unauthorized use quickly.

5. Freeze the credit of all family members.  First, read this article: https://www.nerdwallet.com/blog/finance/pros-and-cons-freezing-credit/. Then go through the process of freezing credit for all family members at Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, either by phone or online. In my son’s case, I found this to be a relatively easy process. Credit freezes have to be renewed every year. When you know your student or another family member is going to apply for credit (e.g., car loan, credit card, student loan), temporarily “unfreeze” the credit.

6. Read these articles about how to protect yourself from identity theft:

7. Be careful about what apps you keep open on your cell phone! And, use a thumbprint or cell phone passcode that is not something obvious, such as part of an address, a birthdate or phone number. In my son’s case, not only did they hack his banking app (which was password-protected) but they also used his Uber app to order up a bunch of food for delivery.

8. Here are some articles about ways to protect your privacy online:

Parents, if you have a student heading to (or back to) college next month, now is the time to have a candid discussion about safety, online privacy, digital theft and identify theft.