Identity Theft - How Can My Information Be Stolen?

Be aware of the ways in which personal information can be stolen and take steps to eliminate them or reduce your risk. 

The following areas are addressed:

  • Online vigilance
  • Phishing
  • Spyware
  • Everyday precautions
  • Mail protection
  • Scimming awareness

Protecting Yourself From Identity Theft Online

Virus Protection
Make sure your firewall and virus protection are updated before doing anything online, even checking your email.  Make sure you are in control of and regulating what programs of your computer are allowed to access the internet without your express permission. If you don't know how to set these precautionary measures up yourself, find someone who does.

Alternate Email
Create an email address simply for online purchases.  It's a good idea to have two email addresses, one to give out to friends and family, and one that to use for online purchases of every kind, even the relatively secure ones like Amazon books, and airline tickets.  Many retailers will send you confirmation emails etc, so don't forget the password or anything.  Simply check this email before and after purchases, or to track purchases.  You probably will get spammed. However, having an email service with great spam protection can even minimize the stuff you get in your "junk" email. Simply report it as spam to your provider before you delete it.

Nothing Is Free
Never, ever, ever fall for the "free 500$ gift card" scam.  No one will ever give you anything for free. It's not gonna happen. One of the most prevalent internet and identity scams are popups offering you a free laptop, or a substantial gift card.  When you click on the pop-up, you enter a site requiring you to view advertisements and select two in which to participate in order to receive your 'free' gift.  They will bill you for your use of the products you selected but didn't really want.  You will probably not get the bait they used to pull you into the site.

File Sharing
Avoid file-sharing and file-swapping programs.  While they may be quasi-legal, they are a perfect way for hackers to obtain access to your computer, either to deliver a virus, or to obtain private information.  Be aware of what your children are doing on your computer, and regularly search for file-sharing programs.  For more tips on family-smart internet, visit www.getnetwise.org

Avoid Porn like the Plague
Porn sites are notorious for hacking your firewall, your email address book etc etc.  While it is a bad idea for many reasons to visit these sites, identity theft statistics climb through thru the roof when computer users submit information to sites that are either blatantly pornographic, or advertise for pornographic entities.

If it sounds to good to be true, it is
Bill Gates is not sharing his fortune.  You will not get a free laptop, free college tuition, or free gift card.  No one in Africa, India, China etc. needs your help to access their long lost fortune.  They only need your help to access yours.

Protecting Yourself From Identity Theft via Phishing
Phishing is a clever term to define an identity theft technique that closely resembles fishing, unscrupulous and clever con artists trolling bait in front of a wide pool of potential victims and seeing who will bite.  And according to the Federal Trade commission, they are successful 2 of every 10 times, These "Phiserman" are looking for a wide variety of personal information and carefully craft spurious emails or phone calls (less common) which might lead the unsuspecting to disclose this information.:

Classic Phishing emails will pose as a bank, ebay, paypal, even the government, and tell you they need confirmation of your account number, passcode, social security number etc. Phishing emails will claim there has been an error on your account, that your taxes have been filed incorrectly, or that you are not in compliance of with the Patriot Act, to name a few. These emails will then re-direct you to a site that looks just like the institution they are posing as.  Be aware, that both the email and the website link can be fake, even though the site that comes up my look exactly like your own Bank-of-the-Scammed website you are used to. The following websites supply more information about identified Phishing schemes if you think you may have already been victimized or wish to know what to look for.
www.antiphishing.org
www.secretservice.org
www.irs.gov

Another type of Phishing email is the one that asks for help in accessing or inheriting money, often of foreign origination, where the unsuspecting might buy into not understanding the legal rules. Remember, no one in Africa, India, China etc. needs your help to access their long lost fortune.  They only need your help to access yours. If you are concerned about the possible truthfulness of an email or forward that falls in this category of Phishing, www.truthorfiction.com has details about most of the prevalent emails, and their comparative veracity.

The number of Phishing emails in circulation increases exponentially every day. However, thanks to public awareness campaigns and the growing savvy of consumers, increasingly few are falling for them. But the number still remains high enough to make it a lucrative business for the ethically challenged.  According to the Federal Trade Commission, 2 of every 10 "Phishermen" are successful.  Here are some tips to keep yourself from being one of their victims.

  • Be aware that banks and other financial institutions will never, ever request personal information from you via email.
  • Be aware that the IRS does not EVER communicate via email.  If you think are suspicious about an email claiming to be from the IRS, call 1-877-777-4778 or visit the above IRS website
  • Be aware that solicitors, via internet or phone never need to obtain your personal information in a way that cannot be submitted to them in writing or thru normal channels.
  • If you are still concerned an email might be a valid information request, call your company directly and ask them if they really do need an information change, and conduct that business over a secure phone line.
  • Never click on links in an email to contact a financial institution.  If you need to do business online, always type in the URL yourself.
  • http(s) indicates a secure or encrypted website, after you have typed in the URL yourself, look for the (s) on the website.  In addition, a small lock symbol on the lower right hand corner of your screen also indicates an encrypted session.
  • Never enter your credit card information online without making sure the institution has an online identity protection policy.  Never send credit card, bank account or social security information via email or any other hackable entity.
  • When you receive emails that have the possibility of being valid, check the URL and IP address of the email sender to see if it matches with the known address of the bank or sender that could be being spoofed.
  • Delete emails asking for personal or account information immediately
  • Never reply to a Phishing email, even to question it. If you have not initiated the contact, do not respond.
  • Install and update your antivirus and antispyware software regularly. Update your browser and use a personal firewall.

Protecting Yourself From Identity Theft via Spyware

Protecting Yourself From Identity Theft Thru Every Day Precautions

Stolen or Lost items
No one plans to lose their wallet or their purse. But in their lifetime, almost every one will do so at least once.  Some of us do it frequently. No one expects to be pick-pocketed, but it is not uncommon.  Regardless of how safe you consider your town, your friends, or your shopping habits, plan for the worst. Try and minimize the number of credit and debit cards you have on your person.  Don't carry large amounts of cash. Never carry your pin numbers or passwords written in your wallet.  And never, ever carry your Social Security card in your wallet or purse.

In addition, you should sign the back of your credit and debit cards as soon as you receive them in the mail.  Be prepared to show an ID upon purchase.  When asked to do this by a vendor, consider it an indication of their interest in protecting you, rather than an unnecessary hassle.

Over the Shoulder Surfers
You'd be surprised how far away an observant watcher can stand from your computer or ATM screen and still be able to duplicate your keystrokes for password and pin information.  If you feel like someone is watching too intently, or even standing too close, don't feel shy about turning around, looking them in the eye, and asking them to take a step back.

Password Vigilance
Everyone struggles with forgetting passwords and Pin numbers.  The temptation to use the same password or pin for every account is very understandable.  Unfortunately, identity thieves understand it as well. Change your passwords often, use letter and number combinations, and avoid the obvious (birthdates, anniversaries, addresses, children's names).

Always  Double-Check
Oftentimes we are asked to give our Social Security numbers to medical offices or other security providers.  When someone requests your Social Security number, don't be afraid to ask them why they need it, if they have any other way of tracking your information, and if you can give different form of verification instead.  Sometimes another form ID will work just as well, and the request for Social Security numbers is habitual rather than essential.

Make sure any sticky notes or papers where your Social Security or Credit Card numbers have been recorded temporarily are destroyed. Always                                 collect your receipts from the register, the self-checkout and the gas pump.

Choose your financial planners and tax preparers carefully.  These professionals will have access to all of your personal information,  everything needed to steal an identity or create a double one.  Make sure their internal security measures (protection and disposal of sensitive and personal information) are professional and safe.

Emergency Preparedness
Always prepare for the worst. Have a folder or document case (waterproof is best) where you keep all of your essential documents (birth and marriage certificates, social security cards, bank information, car and house titles etc.) In case of evacuation due to emergencies or natural disasters, you can grab them in a hurry.   In addition, make sure that at least one other responsible household member also knows their location.

Protecting Yourself From Identity Theft Thru the Mail

Although online hackers and internet fraud is increasing exponentially, the primary method identity thieves use to obtain information is still through the U.S mail. Mail fraud is extremely common, and most ordinary consumers fail to follow simply protective measures until they have experienced the stresses and compromised credit of having their identity stolen.

Check Mail Daily
Don't allow mail to build up in your box over a several day period.  If you are leaving town, make arrangements for someone to retrieve your mail while you are gone.  Mail theft can also occur during the time before mail pick-up and after mail delivery. If you are using the mailbox for outgoing mail, don't put up the red flag that signals the mailman there is mail to pick-up, as it signals everyone else as well.  If the letter is time sensitive and you are concerned that the mailman may not stop if he has not mail, use a post office drop box.  If, due to work schedules, it is not possible for a member of your household to both put out and pick up the mail where there are not hours unaccounted for before it reaches a U.S. postman, you may want to look into a more secure mail system.

Increase Mail Security
If you live in an apartment building or condominium, make sure your mail box system is by individual apartment only, rather than by suites or floor.  You, and only you, should have access to your mail.  If you live in private residence, you can obtain mailboxes with a lock.  More and more consumers are simply opting to obtain a P.O. Box at the local Post Office, preferring less hassle, and absolute security.

Be Smart About Disposal
One of the smartest household purchases that you can make is a small shredder.  Private use shredders are not generally very expensive, and routine shredding of financial documents before throwing them out with the trash is the best way to protect your identity.  If you don't own a shredder, rip the documents up, and remove your name from them. You should do this with all credit card offers and notices, as well as bank statements. Identity thieves can and will go "dumpster diving" sorting through trash to find information they can compile into a lucrative fraud.

Pay Attention and Act Quickly
Know when your statements are supposed to arrive via the mail, and act quickly if one is missing.  If you do suspect mail fraud, call the Postal Inspection Service, or contact them online at www.usps.com. You should contact the USPS even if you and your financial institution have resolved the issue. They compile information from across the board, and make it more likely that they will be able to identify and prosecute the identify thief.

Protecting Yourself From Identity Theft Thru Scimming

Scimming is a new identity theft technique which involves hooking a false plate over an ATM screen that looks just like the ATM face, but in reality reads and saves your debit card information, and then spits back a message to you that the machine is malfunctioning, try again later.  Only use ATMS in well-lit places with a clear line of site around you.  Take time to inspect the ATM front to make sure it is flush with the machine.

Another Scimming device, unlike the ATM fronts, is obtainable for legal use as well as illegal.  It is a small black box that an individual credit card can be ran thru quickly.  The box can save the information of up to 100 cards, and easily fits in a pocket.  The user of the box can then sell the information to someone who knows how to scam it, use it themselves, or even create new, fake cards.  These devices are generally used to perpetrate identity theft in places like restaurants, with a high volume of money handlers and low accountability measures.  No matter how nice your waiter seems, these days it's a good idea to pay cash.

Next Article: Identity Theft - Managing Financial Records