A few years ago, I was in sitting busy airport terminal, waiting to board my next flight. Making the most of the free public wifi, I had my laptop perched on my knees, and was trying to squeeze in some work between layovers. I took a break to do a round of apartment hunting online, and found a listing on Craigslist for a cute place in Los Angeles. The deal seemed too good to be true.
The listing led me to an online application that asked for standard info, including my Social Security number. It was only after I filled it out and was about to input my credit card information for the application fee that realized I might’ve been a victim of a phishing scam. Upon closer inspection, the website looked bogus. What’s more, I never received a follow-up email or phone call.
Sadly, such identity theft attempts are quite common. According to the 2019 Identity Fraud Study, in 2018 14.4 million people in the U.S. were victims of identity theft. And freelancers such as myself, who work remotely and whose livelihoods depends largely on having an online presence, might be more vulnerable to certain types of scams.
Here are a handful of identity security issues freelancers face in particular, and what measures we can take to safeguard highly sensitive information:
Be Wary of Public Wi-fi Hotspots
If you’re working out of a coffee shop, airport terminal or library and are tapping into the free public wi-fi, know that you’re at a higher risk to malware and snooping. What’s more, your passwords are more vulnerable to being intercepted by hackers.
Try to avoid public wi-fi in general, says Kelvin Coleman, executive director of the National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA). If you are using a wifi hotspot, don’t transmit personal information or log on to financial accounts. If possible, use a private network, or to a personal hotspot that’s tethered to your phone.
If you’re into saving money like me, you get excited when you can access free hotspots. But it might be worthwhile to pay for a personal hotspot from your home internet provider or cable company.
Don’t Transmit Sensitive Info Over Email
When onboarding with a new client, you might be asked to provide forms that include valuable personal or financial info — think W-9 forms with your Social Security Number, voided check stubs, and banking info.
Ideally, you shouldn’t be emailing sensitive info like that, but it can be tough to get around it. If you’re relaying such info, be sure to password-protect your files. Sure, it’s another step, but it could lower your odds of being a victim of identity theft.
Get an EIN
When I was working at an entertainment labor union and hired freelance photographers to cover our events, one freelancer refused to email over her W-9. She was concerned with having a document with her Social Security number floating around in the digisphere. To be honest, the time, I didn’t fully understand her concern. I now see that she had a point.
When it comes to W-9 forms in particular, you could apply for what’s called an Employer Identification Number, or EIN. While sole proprietors aren’t required to get an EIN, getting an EIN means you don’t have to use your Social Security number on those W-9 forms.
Opt for Two-Step Verification
Opt for two-step verification with your email and bank accounts. What this means is that for a user to access an email account, you’ll need to provide two pieces of information for you to log in to an account. This adds an extra layer of security. And if you might toggle between accounts or check email from different computers, it certainly can help protect your accounts from getting hacked.
Protect your Identity on Freelancer Platforms
As a freelancer, it’s vital that you have an online presence. Whether it’s a professional website, maintaining a LinkedIn or social media accounts, or setting up profiles on freelance marketplaces, you’ll want to be careful about what info you’re putting out there.
While emails and phone numbers might not be enough for a scammer to steal your identity, it could potentially clue thieves into finding valuable personal info. You could schedule appointments using a scheduler. And you know how you need to insert a physical address at the footer of emails and newsletters you send out? In lieu of using your home address, consider paying for a P.O. box and using that instead.
Besides not including personal information online — this includes your phone number and home address, you’ll want to also be on the lookout for fake profiles. We’re talking about con artists using your phone and personal details, and pretending to be you. To avoid create accounts on platforms even if you don’t plan on using them, recommends Chris Parker, founder of What Is My IP Address.
“Having a presence can prevent someone else from using your handle and likeliness to create a fake profile.” What’s more, make sure your profiles are linked to your website, and the other way around says Parker. “This way people who are looking at your profiles can see that it’s really you.”
If you spot a fake profile of someone pretending to be you, you’ll want to report it. You can file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
Consider Cyber Insurance
If you’re a solopreneur who maintains email lists for marketing purposes — think email blasts, newsletters, and online campaigns — you’ll want to encrypt those files. If maintaining and growing these lists are an integral part of your business, you might want to consider cyber insurance. In case there’s a data breach, cyber insurance could help cover losses and recoup damages.
I know — you’re already probably paying for a slew of insurance: health, business liability, and disability. But if acquiring and maintaining other people’s personal info is an integral part of your business, you could suffer some serious losses in the case of a data breach.
Other reasons why you might want to consider getting cyber insurance? You might want to consider cyber insurance if you process online payments, and store information, files, and data on the cloud.
A general rule of thumb with insurance: make sure it covers what you need it to and that you purchase adequate coverage. Not being honest with your situation or what you need could put at risk for being denied coverage when you need it.
Identity theft can affect pretty much anyone who uses a computer, send an email, or has a smartphone. And as solopreneurs, freelancers might be particularly vulnerable to certain forms.
Bottom line: The fewer the personal details you put out there, the safer you’ll be. “Your information is valuable data, and is currency on the dark web,” points out Coleman. “You’ll want to be a minimalist, and share as little as possible.”