Protecting your identity
Think identity theft or fraud can't happen to you? Think again. Scamming for information is nothing new, but the Web provides a fresh means of fraud. The result: identity theft is a fast-growing, serious offense and it could affect you.
Identity theft tops the list of all fraud complaints received by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Consumers reported fraud losses totaling over $1.2 billion U.S., according to the FTC's annual Consumer Fraud and Identity Theft Complaint Data report. And that means protecting private information is a top priority for anyone who relies on the Internet for communicating personal or financial data.
How exactly does it work? When a criminal gathers enough personally identifiable information about you, that person can take over your identity to commit a range of crimes for their own personal gain.
A variety of techniques - including old-fashioned thievery and cyber scams - can be used to get past your defenses. According to ID Theft Protect's website, a leading resource for consumers on identity fraud, identity theft, and data privacy, the five most popular methods of identity fraud and theft are:
- Application fraud: using stolen or counterfeit documents to open an account in your name.
- Account ID take-over: using your personal information to take over your bank or credit accounts.
- Mail non-receipt card fraud: stealing new or replaced bank and credit cards as they are in the process of being mailed to you by your card company.
- Phishing e-mail fraud: posing as a legitimate institution in order to capture personal or financial information by e-mail.
- Pharming fraud: redirecting you to a bogus website in order to capture credentials, like your online banking username and password.
While there may not be one foolproof way to protect your private information from these theft attempts, there are precautions you can, and should, be practicing. Below are basic guidelines we have compiled to help you reduce the risk of identity theft, whether you are online or offline.
- Monitor your credit closely. Your credit report contains information about your credit accounts and bill paying history so you can be tipped off when someone is impersonating you. Watch for suspicious signs, like accounts you did not open.
- Keep records of your financial data and transactions. Review your statements regularly for any activity or charges you did not make.
- Install security software (firewall, anti-virus, anti-spyware software) and keep it up-to-date as a safety measure against online intrusions.
- Use an updated Web browser to make sure you're taking advantage of its current safety features. Consider using an alternate browser (like Firefox or Opera) which may lower your risk of malware attacks.
- Be wary of e-mail attachments and links in both e-mail and instant messages. Use caution even when the message appears to come from a safe sender, as identity information in messages can easily be spoofed.
- Store sensitive data securely. Just as you keep sensitive paper documents under lock and key, secure sensitive online information. This can be done through file encryption software.
- Shred documents (both paper and electronic) that contain personal or financial information before discarding them. This prevents dumpster diving and, in the online world, the ability for hackers to bypass information that has not been permanently deleted from your computer.
- Protect your PII. Be cautious about giving out your personally identifiable information (PII) to anyone. Find out why the information is needed, and if it's absolutely necessary to give out. Be careful about the details you provide about yourself online, such as on social networking sites.
- Stay alert to the latest scams. Awareness and caution are effective methods to counter fraud. Share security tips you learn with friends and family.
There are a number of other online resources with more information on how to protect your identity, as well as actions to take if you think your private information has been compromised. Take a look at the practical tips and resources available at fraud prevention websites, like the U.S. federal government's OnGuardOnline.gov and the non-profit organization Identity Theft Resource Center.