Don’t Get Tricked: Identity Protection Tips You Need

A woman sits on a gray couch with a laptop on her lap, drinking a cup of coffee

The weather is turning, fall is in the air, and Halloween is around the corner—which means it’s National Cybersecurity Awareness Month. How can you ensure October is full of treats while not falling for any scammers’ tricks? By arming yourself with these identity protection tips.

Every American should understand the basics of identity theft protection. According to the most recent report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 10% of people 16 and older have been the victim of identity theft. That’s why we’re encouraging people to educate themselves on identity protection tips this autumn. After all, there’s nothing quite as scary as identity fraud!

Here are some identity theft tricks to watch out for and identity security treats to take advantage of.

Trick: Using Your Data to Open New Accounts

According to the FTC, credit card fraud—including opening new credit card accounts—was the most commonly reported form of identity theft in 2019. Thieves can rack up hundreds of dollars’ worth of bills before you know it happened.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to your cybersecurity to avoid your data being used to open new accounts in your name:

  • Never use the same password across multiple accounts. Switch your passwords up.
  • Never use a password that’s easy to guess. This includes passwords that include your birthday, first or last name, or address.
  • Use passwords that are random combinations of numbers, letters, and symbols.
  • Enable two-factor authentication whenever it’s offered.
  • Don’t share or write down your passwords.
  • Never click on unknown email links or pop-ups on websites.
  • Make sure websites are secure before entering your payment information.
  • Never connect to public Wi-Fi that isn’t secure.
  • Never walk away from your laptop in public places.
  • Enable firewall protection.
  • Monitor your accounts and credit reports for unusual activity.

Treat: Check Your Credit Reports

Identity theft protection starts by being proactive and regularly monitoring your information for suspicious activity. That includes monitoring your credit report.

Did you know that you’re entitled to one free copy of your credit report each year from all three credit reporting agencies? In honor of National Cybersecurity Awareness Month, make October the month that you request your reports and go over them with a fine-toothed comb. Make sure you recognize all the open accounts under your name.

[Note: Through April 2021, you can review your credit reports weekly.]

An added bonus of checking your reports early in the month is that you can give your credit a good once-over before the upcoming holiday shopping season. Unexplained dips in your credit score could be a sign that something is wrong.

When you request your free credit report from the credit bureaus, your report does not come with your credit score—you have to request that separately. Sign up for ExtraCredit to get 28 of your FICO® scores and your credit reports from all three credit bureaus. You’ll also get account monitoring and $1 million identity theft insurance.

Protect Your Identity with ExtraCredit

Trick: Charity Fraud

October also happens to be Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and everywhere you look, pink is on display. With so much national attention on breast cancer, it’s easy to fall for scams that claim to be legitimate charities.

Consumers should also be on the lookout for phony COVID-19 related scams this fall and winter. For example, watch out for fake charities that pretend to provide COVID relief to groups or families but are simply stealing money.

Even worse than handing over money to these heartless fraudsters is that you may have handed over your credit card numbers or other personally identifiable information in the process.

Treat: Know Your Worthy Causes

Before donating to a charitable cause, do your homework. You can use websites such as Charity Navigator, CharityWatch, and the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance to check a charity’s reputation. Additionally, consider contacting your state’s charity regulator to confirm the organization is registered to raise money in your state.

After you’ve verified the status of the charity, consider making donations directly through the national organization. Avoid giving money or financial information directly to someone that reaches out to you through email, phone calls, or door-to-door interactions.

It might be a bit of extra work, but at the end of the day, you can feel good knowing your money is going to support a real cause. If you want to support October’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month, consider donating directly on the national website. An added bonus is that you’ll receive a receipt you can use for tax deduction purposes.

Trick: Tax Refund Fraud

Every year, the Internal Revenue Service announces its “dirty dozen” scams. These are the tax fraud scams the IRS determines to be the most common for the year. The 2020 list includes refund theft. A tax thief gains access to your information, files a fraudulent return in your name before you do, and has the funds paid out them. The only way you find out about it is that your legitimate tax return—the one you submit—is rejected for having already been filed.

Another way individuals fall victim to tax refund fraud is by using an unscrupulous return vendor. Dishonest vendors and ghost preparers steal personal information to file a tax refund and pocket the money or use that information for other types of identity fraud.

It’s unclear what exactly the next round of stimulus legislation will include, but if another stimulus check is included, watch out for attempts to steal your COVID stimulus checks. Remember that the IRS never contacts you via email, social media, or text.

Treat: File Early

It may feel like you just finished filing your 2019 taxes, but it’s never too early to start preparing for next year. While filing your taxes might be the last thing you want to think about this month, it’s crucial to stay on top of your tax return documents so you’re ready to file as early as possible. This is especially true for individuals who have reason to believe that their personal data has already been breached.

Always ensure you work with a reputable tax return vendor. You can look at the vendor’s online reviews before considering them as an option for tax return help.

Additionally, individuals that are paid to assist with or prepare federal tax returns must have a Preparer Tax Identification Number (PTIN). Paid preparers must sign and include their PTIN on returns. Always ask for this number before you hire an individual and hand over your personal information.

If you file early, you can beat out someone filing before you and receiving your return first. The earliest you can file is January.

Trick: Social Media Scams

Our social media accounts allow us to stay connected with friends and family. Unfortunately, scammers understand this and have started using social media to commit identity fraud.

There are many variations of social media phishing scams, but the basics are generally that a scammer creates an account to gain your trust and gather personal information from you. For example, many people have their name, birthday, and workplace information on their Facebook or other social media account. Those three things alone could be enough for someone to gain everything else they need to create a credit card application under your name or access your existing accounts.

Treat: Be More Exclusive and Private

Consider taking a quiet October morning to comb through your social media accounts. Start with your followers. Consider deleting everyone you don’t know personally.

If a follower base is important to you, consider another approach. Go through each social profile and scrub any personal details. Change the spelling of your last name slightly, delete your birthday, and remove other personal information, such as place of work. Ultimately, this can reduce the risk of being an easy target for identity fraud.

These core identity protection tips should help you stay safer online. With COVID-19 causing people to feel scared, individuals are more vulnerable to being tricked. Remember that identity fraud happens to millions of people every year, and it’s important to remain vigilant.

Stay Vigilant This Fall

Identity theft can have long-lasting consequences. If you’re recovering from identity fraud or simply unhappy with your credit score, consider signing up for ExtraCredit. ExtraCredit is a five-in-one credit product that provides tools to helps you build, guard, track, reward, and restore your credit.

Sign Up Now

The post Don’t Get Tricked: Identity Protection Tips You Need appeared first on Credit.com.

Source: credit.com

Best Places to Celebrate Halloween in 2020

Image shows a carved and lit jack-o-lantern wearing a medical mask and sitting on some steps outside, surrounded by fallen leaves. SmartAsset analyzed various data sources (taking into account COVID-19) to find the best places to celebrate Halloween in 2020.

Halloween typically scares up a major boost in U.S. consumer spending, to the tune of $8.78 billion in 2019, according to the National Retail Federation. Though this year’s celebration will be scaled down in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the trade group still projects that Americans will shell out $8.05 billion on things like candy, costumes, decorations and greeting cards. Despite the fact that many city governments are discouraging trick-or-treating and the CDC is recommending extensive safety guidelines, it’s still possible for families to get in the spirit of the holiday with the proper protocols in place. Whether you’re planning to don costumes and go house to house with your pod or attend a Zoom masquerade, not all locations are equally conducive to enjoying the festivities. That’s why SmartAsset crunched the numbers to find the best cities in the U.S. to celebrate Halloween in 2020.

To do this, we analyzed data for a total of 210 cities. We considered a range of metrics that we grouped into four categories: family friendliness, safety, weather and candy & costumes. For this year’s study, we included metrics like internet connection and recent COVID-19 infection rates to account for the different ways Americans will celebrate the holiday as a result of the pandemic. For details on our data sources and how we put all the information together to create our final rankings, check out the Data and Methodology section below.

This is SmartAsset’s 2020 study on the best places to celebrate Halloween. Read our 2019 study on the best places to trick-or-treat here.

Key Findings

  • California cities take a number of hallowed spots at the top. Cities in the Golden State dominate the top 10 of this study. Five California cities – Vacaville, Fremont, Livermore, Oceanside and Menifee – are in the top 10, and there are four more in the top 15. The major factor driving a lot of these California cities to the top is their safety rating. Two of the above cities, Livermore and Fremont, rank in the top five for safety. The three other California cities finish within roughly the top 15% of the study for this category.
  • Halloween towns without frightening housing costs. A person who is burdened by housing costs is spending at least 30% of income on housing, with the threshold for “severely housing cost-burdened” at 50%. All the cities in our top 10 have housing costs below that 30% threshold, with residents of Mount Pleasant, South Carolina spending just 17.99% of income on housing costs (ranking first in the top 10 and fifth overall for this metric). The city in the top 10 with the highest housing costs as a percentage of income is Menifee, California, at 28.32% – still coming in below the 30% threshold. The average figure for this metric across all 210 cities in the study is 23.58%, so many families may still have some money left over – no doubt a “boo-n” for their costumes and candy budget.

1. Vacaville, CA

The best place to celebrate Halloween in 2020 is Vacaville, California. There are a study-topping 13.94 candy stores per 10,000 total establishments in Vacaville, which ensures trick-or-treaters will have plenty of sweet options to stick in their pumpkin pails and pillowcases. This, combined with a ranking of 38th out of 210 for the 34.84 costume shops per 10,000 total establishments (a top-quintile ranking), puts Vacaville at ninth in the candy & costumes index for this study. The city also finishes 32nd overall for the safety index, which includes a daily COVID-19 infection rate of 8.27 per 100,000 residents, 58th out of 210.

2. Sparks, NV

Trick-or-treaters who don’t have warm or waterproof costumes can rejoice: Sparks, Nevada has the fifth-best ranking for the weather category in this study. That includes a precipitation probability of just 1.0% on Halloween (ranking ninth out of 210) and an average temperature that is just 3.4 degrees off the ideal Halloween temperature of 60 (ranking 44th out of 210). Nearly 22% of the population in Sparks is younger than 14, the 33rd-highest percentage for this metric in the study and an indication that youngsters will have many in their demographic available to participate in some spooky fun.

3. Fremont, CA

Fremont, California ranks fourth in our study for the safety category. It is tied for the third-lowest rate of new COVID-19 infections in the study, at 3.31 each day per 100,000 residents. Fremont also finishes 24th out of 210 in terms of its relatively low violent crime rate, with just 211 cases per 100,000 residents each year. What’s more, the city finishes 16th in the family friendliness index, buoyed by a population where 95.07% of homes have internet access, seventh-best in this study and helpful for those who want to take their Monster Mash online.

4. Virginia Beach, VA

Virginia Beach, Virginia also scores well in the safety category – ninth-best in the study out of all 210 cities. The violent crime rate in Virginia Beach is particularly low, ranking eighth overall, with just 117 incidents per 100,000 residents each year. In terms of COVID-19 cases, Virginia Beach falls just outside the top quartile, finishing 55th, with 8.16 new cases per 100,000 residents each day. The city also ranks 37th of 210 for its relatively large concentration of costume shops, at almost 35 per 10,000 total establishments.

5. Livermore, CA

The third California city in our top 10 is Livermore, located on the Bay Area’s eastern edge. Livermore ranks third in the safety category, on the strength of being tied for third-fewest new COVID-19 infections, at just 3.31 per 100,000 residents each day. Livermore also has the 21st-lowest rate of violent crime overall (ranking in the best 10% of the study), at 203 incidents per 100,000 residents each year. Furthermore, the city has the 14th-best family friendliness index in the study, powered by an eighth-place ranking for the percentage of homes with internet access, at 95.00%, making it that much easier to use the World Wide Web to show off that homespun spider web decor.

6. Elgin, IL

Elgin, Illinois ranks 11th out of 210 in the family friendliness category of our study. Housing costs represent just 19.87% of income on average, the 24th-best percentage for this metric overall. The population is 22.61% children under the age of 14, ranking 26th out of 210. Elgin is also a fairly festive place for Halloween. There are 12.29 candy stores per 10,000 establishments, the fourth-highest rate for this metric in the study.

7. Mount Pleasant, SC

Mount Pleasant, South Carolina ranks 12th overall for the candy & costumes category out of all 210 cities we analyzed. That includes having 52.93 costume shops per 10,000 establishments, the sixth-highest rate in the study for this metric. Mount Pleasant is also a relatively affordable place to live, having the fifth-lowest housing costs as a percentage of income overall, at just 17.99%.

8. Oceanside, CA

Although housing costs in Oceanside, California make up 28.02% of income (ranking 193rd out of 210), this coastal city near San Diego has the 14th-best weather index score in the study, which is great news for trick-or-treaters who don’t want to be soaked and shivering while they’re participating in contactless candy pickup. There is just a 1.4% chance of precipitation on Halloween in Oceanside (ranking 19th of 210). Plus, the average temperature there, at 8.2 degrees away from 60 degrees, ranks in the top half of the study.

9. Dearborn, MI

Dearborn, Michigan finishes in the top 45 for all four data categories we considered, including ranking 33rd of 210 (a top-quintile ranking) for the candy & costumes category. There are 34.57 costume shops for every 10,000 establishments, the 40th-best rate for this metric in the study. Dearborn is also a very young city: It has the fifth-highest percentage of residents younger than age 14, at 24.87%, which might help costumed kiddos feel a little less like the pandemic’s gotten everyone stuck in a real ghost town.

10. Menifee, CA

Menifee, California ranks 22nd out of 210 for the candy & costumes category. It has 6.78 candy stores per 10,000 establishments, ranking 32nd overall for this metric. It’s also unlikely your Halloween will be rained on in Menifee – there is a 0.6% chance of precipitation on Oct. 31, the best rate for this metric across all the cities we examined.

Data and Methodology

To find the best cities to celebrate Halloween in 2020, we analyzed 210 cities in 10 metrics across four categories:

Family Friendliness Metrics

  • Percentage of residents 14 years or younger. Data comes from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 1-Year American Community Survey.
  • Housing costs as a percentage of income. Data comes from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 1-Year American Community Survey.
  • Percentage of households with internet access. Data comes from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 1-Year American Community Survey.

Safety Metrics

  • Violent crime rate. This is the number of violent crimes per 100,000 residents. Data comes from the FBI’s 2018 Uniform Crime Reporting database as well as NeighborhoodScout.com.
  • Property crime rate. This is the number of property crimes per 100,000 residents. Data comes from the FBI’s 2018 Uniform Crime Reporting database as well as NeighborhoodScout.com.
  • Daily new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents. This is the seven-day moving average of newly confirmed COVID-19 cases as of Oct. 17. Data comes from Halloween2020.org.

Halloween Weather Metrics

  • Precipitation probability. This is the chance it rains 0.5 inches or snows 0.1 inches on Halloween. Data comes from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
  • Average temperature. This is the average maximum temperature on Oct. 31, from 1981 to 2010. We compared the average maximum temperature to 60 degrees Fahrenheit, which we think is the perfect temperature for trick-or-treating. Data comes from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Candy & Costumes Metrics

  • Concentration of candy stores. The number of candy stores (including confectionary and nut stores) per 10,000 establishments. Data comes from the 2018 County Business Patterns survey
  • Concentration of costume shops. The number of costume shops (including clothing accessory stores, other clothing stores and formal wear and costume rental stores) per 10,000 establishments. Data comes from the 2018 County Business Patterns survey.

First, we ranked each city in each metric, assigning equal weight to every metric except for the two crime metrics, which each received a half-weight. Then we averaged the rankings across the four categories listed above. For each category, the city with the highest average ranking received a score of 100. The city with the lowest average ranking received a score of 0. We created our final ranking by calculating each city’s average score for all three categories.

Tips for Managing Your Money to Avoid Spooky Surprises

  • Save yourself the toil and trouble. Organizing your finances doesn’t need to be a nightmare. A financial advisor can help make your life much easier. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with financial advisors in your area in five minutes. If you’re ready to be matched with local advisors that will help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
  • Make sure your mortgage doesn’t haunt you. If you want to buy a home in one of these great Halloween cities, which are also fantastic locations to lay down roots as a family, consider using SmartAsset’s free mortgage calculator to see what your monthly payment might be.
  • Budgets don’t have to be blood-sucking. A budget can help you get on track to be able to spend a bit extra in October to enjoy Halloween properly. Use SmartAsset’s budget calculator to avoid vampiric bites to your savings account.

Questions about our study? Contact press@smartasset.com.

Photo credit: Â©iStock.com/cglade

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Source: smartasset.com