Most consumer protection tips tend to be reactive -- telling you how to spot a scam email, for instance, or respond to a collections call. But there are also certain proactive steps you can take right now to head off fraud and financial screw-ups before they even take place.
Here are five actions you can take to protect yourself as a consumer, all of which should take less than five minutes to complete.
1. Turn on Two-Step Verification on Your Email
Security experts will tell you that you should have a different password for every online account you open. But anyone who uses the Internet on a regular basis knows that this is virtually impossible -- you likely have dozens of accounts ranging from bank accounts to email to social media to news sites, and you access them on multiple devices.
You have a few options here. One is to use a few strong, unique passwords for your most sensitive accounts and then repeat passwords for non-critical accounts. A better choice is to use a password-management tool like LastPass; you'll only have to remember one master password, and the program will generate nigh-uncrackable passwords for all of your accounts.
But whichever route you choose, there's one easy step that you should take now: Enable two-step verification on your email.
Email is in many ways your most important account: When you forget a password to one of your other accounts, the password reset link will be sent to your email. If someone takes over your email, they can reset all the passwords to your other accounts and take them over.
Fortunately, email providers like Gmail now offer what's known as two-step verification. Enabling this feature means that if someone tries to access your email account from a different computer than you usually use, they'll need more than just your password -- they'll also need a second one-time password that's sent to your mobile phone. So unless the hacker has also gotten ahold of your phone, they'll be unable to get into your account.
Two-factor authentication can be set up in less than 5 minutes. We'd recommend putting it in place for your email and bank accounts.
2. Get on the Do-Not-Call List
If you're being harassed by a telemarketer, you can always block the call. But let's be honest: You probably don't want to hear from any telemarketers, ever, so you might as well exercise your right to block them forever.
If you didn't get on the do-not-call list when it first came out, don't fret: You can do it any time, and you can add up to three numbers, including your cell phone. The registration does not need to be renewed unless you get a new phone number.
You can register in less than a minute at DoNotCall.gov or by calling (888) 382-1222. And one final word of warning on the subject: If you get an unsolicited phone call offering to add your number to the registry for a fee, it's actually a scammer. The government doesn't allow private companies to register people for the list, and registration is free. Such cons are either trying to make a quick buck, or trying to get you to hand over your personal information.
3. Get a Free Credit Report
According to the FTC, 42 million U.S. consumers have errors on their credit reports they don't know about. Those errors can lower your score, reduces your eligibility for loans and credit cards, and cost you a good chunk of change on a home loan.
You can't get rid of those errors until you know about them. Fortunately, you're entitled to one free credit report every year from each of the major consumer credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion). You can get that free credit report at AnnualCreditReport.com.
But keep in mind that getting your credit report once a year arguably isn't often enough, as you'll want to dispute erroneous items on your report as quickly as possible.
"We think checking your credit report once a year, an oft-recommended interval, is insufficient for most people," says Erik Larson of NextAdvisor, a site that reviews credit cards, Internet providers and other consumer services. "An identity thief can wreak havoc on your credit in a matter of days, much less an entire year."
With that in mind, Larson recommends signing up for a credit-monitoring service, many of which provide identity theft protection and monthly updates on your credit score. NextAdvisor provides a ranking of the available services.
As an alternative, you can space out those three free credit reports, one from each bureau, ordering one free report every four months. Not quite as proactive a choice as a credit-monitoring service, but it's free.
4. Set Up Alerts on Your Bank Account
If there's a fraudulent charge on your bank account or credit card, you have 60 days to spot it and report it. As such, simply looking at your bank and credit card statements every month should still give you enough time to successfully dispute bogus charges and get your money back.
That's why Miranda Perry, staff writer for online complaint resolution site Scambook, says that consumers should set up alerts on their bank accounts to notify them of unexpected charges.
"Most [banks] set it up so you can get an email or text every time there's a charge," she says, and you can typically designate a minimum charge amount to trigger an alert. "The sooner you become aware, the sooner you can take action."
Banks and credit card issuers have safeguards in place to spot truly unusual activity -- a $2,000 shopping spree, for instance, or a sudden charge halfway across the world. But setting up custom alerts allows you to use your knowledge of your own spending habits to provide an extra layer of protection. For instance, if you never put more than $200 on your debit card, you can get a text or email in the event of any debit card charge over that amount. If you're conscientious about keeping account balances over a certain amount, you can set up an alert to trigger any time your balance falls below that level.
The alerts take just a few minutes to locate on your online banking site and set up.
5. Set Up a Google Alert for Your Name
Credit monitoring and bank alerts can help secure you against threats to your finances. But what about threats to your reputation?
Rather than Googling yourself every day looking for any incorrect (or incriminating) information about you, just take 30 seconds to set up a Google alert. Then, any time your name pops up on a blog, news site or other search result, you can get an email.
If you find information about yourself that you'd rather not have floating around the Web, Google provides a basic primer on getting it removed. Understand, though, that you can't demand that Google remove a search result just because you find it unflattering. Unless the result is somehow in violation of the law or Google's terms of service, you'll have to go directly to the website hosting information to request its removal. Only if the page is amended or removed can you then go to Google and request that they remove it from the search results.
Let's be honest, though: If there's incriminating information about you on the Web, odds are, it's there because you got careless with your social media presence and put it there yourself. As such, one final five-minute task we'd recommend is to manage your privacy settings on Facebook and any other social network where you have a profile. And our friends over at AOL Jobs have compiled a handy list of tips for getting your online reputation under control so that it doesn't damage your job prospects.
Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at Matt.Brownell@teamaol.com, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.
Photo Credit: Alamy