Identity theft rises in Wisconsin; consider adding muscle to your weak PIN codes and passwords

MADISON – Wisconsin identity theft complaints for 2011 rose 10% compared to 2010, according to the Federal Trade Commission. The sad part is that consumers often make it pretty easy for potential thieves.

For example, if you lost your ATM card, how difficult would it be for someone to guess your PIN code and wipe out your bank account? For many folks in Wisconsin, the answer would be “quite easy.” Recent research, which analyzed 3.4 million passwords and codes, found that 11% are 1-2-3-4; 6% are 1-1-1-1 and 2% are 0-0-0-0. Research also found that birthdays and birth years are very popular. While that may be difficult for the average person to guess; if you lose your wallet, your driver’s license with all that information is there for a potential thief to use.

“Identity thieves are getting smarter and employing more robust hacking techniques to break password codes,” said Ron Von Haden, CIC, Executive Vice President of the Professional Insurance Agents of Wisconsin (PIAW). “Consumers need to give themselves a fighting chance by selecting unusual passwords and PIN combinations.”

If you’re one of those people who uses “password” as your password or “123456,” or “abc123,” you’ve got some work to do. Each of these passwords was listed in the top 25 worst of the year by SplashData, a leading developer of productivity and security applications. (See the complete list below.) Here are some strategies for building stronger passwords:

• Length – Experts agree that passwords should be eight characters (or more) in length. A brute-force attack by a computer hacker can easily defeat a password with seven or fewer characters.

• Complexity – Include letters, numbers, punctuation and symbols. If the password system is case-sensitive, use capital and lower-case letters.

• Variety – Avoid using the same password/user name combination on multiple websites. Create unique passwords for online email, social networking and financial services websites.

“There are some easy tricks you can use to create strong passwords,” says Von Haden. “For example write an easily remembered sentence, such as “I graduated from Cleveland High School in 1982!” By taking the first letter from each word along with the date and punctuation, you create the password “IgfCHSi1982!”

Another option is to write a sentence and remove all the spaces, “Complexpasswordsaresafer” Turn some words into shorthand and add a meaningful date: “ComplexpasswordsRsafer2013”

Want to check the strength of your online passwords? Microsoft offers a password checker at https://www.microsoft.com/en-gb/security/pc-security/password-checker.aspx. You simply enter your password and a strength meter rates it as weak, moderate or strong.

It’s okay to write down passwords as long as they are kept in a safe place. The worst place to keep passwords? An unlocked desk drawer or taped to the monitor of your computer.

For extra security, many insurance companies are offering identity theft nsurance. Coverage typically costs from $20 to $100 a year as a rider to a basic homeowner’s policy or as a stand-alone purchase.

“This insurance can be helpful to reimburse consumers for legal expenses and more,” says Von Haden. “Your professional independent insurance agent can discuss the benefits and costs of identity theft insurance so you can determine whether it’s right for you.”

For more information or to locate a PIAW member near you, look for the PIAW logo or go to www.PIAW.org.