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This story is sponsored by Goldenwest Credit Union. Learn more about Goldenwest Credit Union.

Identity theft is a rapidly growing criminal enterprise, with hackers and “phishers” (people who send mass emails designed to deliver viruses or get you to provide personal information) multiplying at an alarming rate.

“Criminals are engaging in complex identity fraud schemes that are leaving record numbers of victims in their wake,” according to one 2018 Identity Fraud Report. The study notes that 16.7 million victims of identity fraud were reported last year (an all-time high).

Luckily, the market is responding with more identity theft protection tools and you can defend yourself by following these five recommendations for monitoring financial activity in your name and keeping your personal data secure.

1. Check your credit report (for free and with no impact to your credit score)

One common and dangerous misconception is that checking your credit will hurt your score. In fact, under federal law, consumers are entitled to a free credit report from all three major credit bureaus without any impact to their credit score. Checking your credit will help you spot fraudulent activity and catch criminals before they harm your record.

“It’s important to look at the information in your credit report, regardless of your financial situation, as it impacts your ability to obtain a credit card, buy a car or home, rent an apartment, or even get a new job,” said Diana Windley, senior vice president of Goldenwest Credit Union. “Two of the best reasons for reviewing your credit report today are to make sure your credit report is accurate and to protect yourself from fraud or identity theft.”

The website www.annualcreditreport.com provides consumers a free copy of each report once a year and you can order each of the three reports separately, effectively letting you see your score three times in a 12-month period. You can also order your free report by phone by calling 877-322-8228 or by writing: Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, GA 30348-5281.

2. Check your bank statements and keep your contact info updated

Remembering to check your bank statements or go through account activity in your online banking app isn’t always easy, but this is the first place where you will spot unusual activity that points to credit card or personal data theft. One way to make a habit of checking is to establish a consistent schedule — check the day you get your paycheck, for example, even if you have direct deposit through your employer.

If you do online shopping, make sure to only purchase from reputable companies that have guaranteed-secure online check-out options. You should also take advantage of your bank’s or credit union’s options for text or email alerts when funds are withdrawn from your account, and keep your email address and phone number on file updated.

You can also ask your bank to provide you with new ATM or credit cards with EMV technology, more commonly known as “chip” cards, which replace the old magnetic strip cards that have been compromised by scammers.

“American cardholders have still been using a decades-old magnetic-stripe-card technology to make credit and debit purchases, according to Consumer Reports. “The data stored on these magnetic stripes are unencrypted, easily counterfeited by skimming devices, and have cost credit card issuers — who until now usually bore the cost of the fraudulent transactions — billions of dollars annually.”

3. React immediately if you see signs of identity theft

If you see something that doesn’t look right, don’t wait to call your bank. Some common signs of identity or credit card data theft are:

  • Credit card and checking account statements that don't arrive when they should
  • You get credit denials for no apparent reason
  • You receive bills for credit accounts or purchases you never made
  • Collection agencies attempt to collect on debts that you didn't incur.

If your payment card or account information has been compromised, your financial institution will contact you. They will have a series of security questions to confirm your identity. If you are uncertain about the validity of the call, tell the person on the other line that you are going to hang up and call the main number for your financial institution. If you receive an email, it’s best to respond with a personal phone call to your financial institution.

Never respond to emails requesting personal information verification. Your financial institution will never ask you for sensitive information like your account number, PIN, social security number, online banking credentials, security codes or card numbers.

4. Keep yourself protected against email scams designed to get your details

One common way that criminals get access to personal data is by sending emails or engaging in “phishing scams.”

“Phishing is when a scammer uses fraudulent emails or texts, or copycat websites to get you to share valuable personal information, such as account numbers, social security number, or your login IDs and passwords,” according to the Federal Trade Commission.

These emails are designed to look exactly like they are from a legitimate source, so they can be difficult to detect unless you are careful. When going through your inbox, delete emails from unknown senders and refraining from clicking on emails that look suspicious. You can also label suspicious emails “spam,” which will block the sender in the future.

Another common way that personal data is obtained is when someone unauthorized obtains or guesses a password. Use strong passwords with a mix of numbers, characters, and upper- and lowercase letters.

5. Join an institution that cares about your security and credit

Enrolling in Goldenwest Credit Union’s Fraud-Defender identity theft protection program can relieve you from the stress of monitoring your credit and remembering to consistently look for unusual activity yourself.

The program provides 24/7 credit monitoring through credit bureaus and identity monitoring through public records. In the event that your identity is stolen while you’re enrolled, you will have a dedicated team to document and report what the criminals have done and put things right.

Become a Goldenwest Credit Union member today for access to easy-to-use online banking and a reduced rate on all identity theft protection and credit investigation services.