Why it’s so important to guard your personal information

By Opinion Time of article published Nov 8, 2021

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By Hester van der Merwe

The days are long gone when hiding your cheque book in your sock drawer was enough to protect your financial information. As transacting online becomes easier and easier, the risk of compromising your financial information has increased exponentially. Most of us know someone who has been a victim of identity theft – it might even have happened to you.

Identity theft is when somebody steals your personal information and uses it fraudulently to commit a crime. Personal information that should be guarded jealously includes your ID number, your bank account number, your credit card details, all your passwords, and your medical aid information.

Criminals use stolen information to get credit, buy things, move cash out of your bank account and even apply for loans which, of course, are never repaid.

Things don’t always go bump in the night…

One of the biggest challenges with identity theft is detecting it. You would probably notice something obvious like a large amount of money disappearing from your bank account, but what about something more insidious like malware? It could take as long as 18 months, or more, for a person to become aware that malicious software has been installed on their computer and is being used to access their personal information.

I recently spoke to an irate friend whose application for home fibre internet had been declined. When she enquired why, it transpired that an identity thief had opened an account in her name at a local furniture store (where my friend had never had an account before) and then failed to honour any of the instalments. Had it not been for the credit check done by the fibre provider, she might have remained unaware of this crime and it might have spiralled out of control.

How to protect yourself

• Don’t carry all your bank cards and your ID document around if you don’t need them. The more cards and documents in your wallet or handbag, the greater the damage if that bag is stolen.

• Avoid using unsecured Wi-Fi networks. Yes, fight the temptation to make a quick online purchase while sipping a cappuccino in your favourite coffee shop or while you’re waiting to board an aeroplane.

• If you don’t know the sender of an e-mail, never open an attachment without first taking steps to ensure its authenticity. Criminals hide malware in attachments and a simple double-click is all it takes.

• Passwords: According to password manager NordPass, the average person has 100 passwords! It’s impossible to remember them all, but don’t be tempted to use one password for different websites, or to use simple passwords like your children’s or pets’ names. And never save your passwords in a note on your cellphone. Thank goodness technology is improving in this regard – there are a number of reputable password managers available to help you keep track of your passwords.

• Take care when buying items online. The web address should start with “https”, not just “http”. That little “s” is very significant: It stands for “secure” and means that your communication with the server is secure. In other words, you’re protected against hackers trying to intercept your information.

• Check your credit record periodically to ensure you have not been compromised by a criminal taking out credit in your name. We all have the right to one free credit report from a registered credit bureau once a year. It can be requested online from form a credit scoring site or any credit bureau such as TransUnion, Experian, VeriCred or XDS.

Popia protects

You are not alone in the fight to protect your personal information. The Protection of Personal Information Act (Popia) came into effect on July 1. The aim of the new legislation is to shield individuals and companies from harmful practices such as identity fraud, by helping both parties protect their personal information.

Privacy is a fundamental human right and we are entitled to this protection. Make sure you know your rights and never be afraid to ask, “Who, how and why?” before you give out any personal information. It’s your privacy and your safety at stake, after all.

Hester van der Merwe is a Certified Financial Planner at Ultima Financial Planners and was the 2020/21 Financial Planner of the Year.

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