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How to avoid identify theft and keep your data safe

To pay her childcare provider, Dedra Ries thought she’d try out a new pay-by-phone app.

The next day, she was shocked to see $250 had been taken from her account using a different money-transfer app, one that she didn’t even have an account with.

Ries contacted her bank to report the fraud. Though no one could figure out how her account had been compromised, they told her: Close the hacked account and open new checking and savings accounts.

But then it happened again. This time, she was out $800.

Ries says she had never even made a transaction of her own on the new account.

“I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from,” Ries, 44, a public health administrator who lives in Chatham on the city’s South Side, says of the mysterious hacking. “So I just needed to move my money because I couldn’t afford people to keep taking money out of my account.”

Dedra Ries, a public health administrator, downloaded a bank app to pay her childcare provider by phone and became a victim of a phishing scheme when her personal information was hacked. | Leslie Adkins / Sun-Times
Dedra Ries, a public health administrator, downloaded a bank app to pay her childcare provider by phone and became a victim of a phishing scheme when her personal information was hacked. | Leslie Adkins / Sun-Times

She changed the passwords for all of her online accounts. She got her computer inspected for malware. She began paying by cash more frequently to avoid the possibility her digital transactions would be compromised.

“I think it’s really important for people to make sure they check their accounts regularly to see if anything looks differently,” Ries says. “I know we’re becoming somewhat of a cashless society, but there are some challenges with that that we have to recognize.”

What do you do when someone steals your identity?

Her bank also advised Ries to request a freeze on her credit file — that’s a free service under a new federal law that took effect Sept. 21. A freeze restricts access to a person’s credit file, making it harder for identity thieves to open new accounts, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Credit freezes need to be requested from all three credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.

“By freezing your credit file, it means that you don’t have immediate, quick access to your credit,” says Steve Bernas, president of the Better Business Bureau of Chicago and Northern Illinois. “But it allows you to protect it better.”

Identity theft is estimated to have hit 16.7 million Americans last year. While data breaches often attract national attention, Bernas says phishing more commonly leads to identity theft.

Phishing is when a scammer tries to gain access to personal information and data by pretending to be somebody else, often through emails or phone calls. Clicking on a link from a phishing email might take a consumer to a website that steals personal information or puts malware on your computer.

“Protecting your personal information is probably the most important thing, and your information is your most valuable commodity, especially your Social Security number,” Bernas says.

How do I protect my identity?

To protect yourself, consumer advocates recommend taking these steps:

  • Choose strong passwords — without identifying information like birthdays, names of loved ones or addresses. Experts recommend changing passwords every 30 days. Consider using a digital password manager, such as 1Password or LastPass.
  • Use two-factor authentication whenever possible. This requires providing an additional piece of information beyond a username and password, such as answering a security question or entering a code that’s texted to your cellphone. “I would just turn that on whenever you can, just to get an extra layer of protection,” says Justin Brookman, director of consumer privacy and technology for the nonprofit Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports. “You’ll have to wait an extra 30 seconds to get the text, but, given that passwords often get compromised, it’s a good idea.”
  • Keep your computer software up-to-date and back up your data to the cloud or to an external hard drive to avoid losing personal files like photos if your computer gets hacked.
  • Request your free credit report from each of the three credit reporting bureaus every year at “That is so important because that’s usually the first sign of determining whether or not you’ve been a victim of identity theft,” Bernas says.
  • Check your account statements frequently for suspicious activity. Set up transaction alerts from your bank.
  • Use a shredder to dispose of paper bank statements or mail that contains personal information.
  • Do not open any unfamiliar links or emails or share personal information unless it is requested from a trusted source.

This is the first in a series “Be On Guard” reported by the Chicago Sun-Times and made possible through the support of AARP Illinois. The AARP Fraud Watch Network can help protect you and your family from frauds and scams. Call this free helpline (877) 908-3360 to speak with volunteers trained in fraud counseling.