Identity Theft

Category: Privacy , Security

Remember that 1995 movie The Net, starring Sandra Bullock? Okay, I didn't see it either. Somehow I couldn't imagine Sandra as a software engineer after watching her in While You Were Sleeping. But I digress... the movie was a story about a growing problem today -- identity theft. Read on to learn how it happens, and try my 12-step program to protect yourself.

identity theft

Who Are You? Who, Who?

It sounds scary. But should you be afraid? You may be wondering exactly what the phrase "identity theft" means. Perhaps it conjures up images of evil plastic surgeons, or someone standing on the street corner yelling "Stop that man -- he just stole my IDENTITY!" And ironically, the policeman says "Who are you?"

Identity theft occurs when someone uses your personal information (usually without your knowledge) to commit fraud or theft. It's a problem that existed before the Internet, or even computers. But computers and the Internet might make it easier for Bad People to learn your name, address, birthdate, social security number, credit card, bank account or driver's license number.

And armed with some or all of that data, it becomes possible for a criminal to invade your privacy, run up a tab at your expense, open bank accounts, apply for loans, establish phone or utility service, request a postal change of address, or even commit crimes in your name.

Who Wants to Be a Billionaire?

A high-school dropout employed as a busboy made headlines when he was caught in a scheme to steal millions from rich and famous people such as Steven Spielberg, Ross Perot, Oprah Winfrey and Ted Turner.

Police arrested 32-year-old Abraham Abdallah, in possession of a tattered copy of Forbes Magazine's "400 Richest" article, marked up with the social security numbers, home addresses and birth dates of 200 celebs and moguls.

Abdallah allegedly used the Internet for some of his research, and was able to obtain detailed credit reports on his victims, gain access to credit cards and poke into accounts at brokerage houses. Abdallah's virtual house of cards began to tumble when Merrill Lynch got suspicious about an email request to transfer $10 million.

A 12-Step Prevention Program

Even if you're not a billionaire, you could put yourself at risk of identity theft if you're not careful. If you don't want to be among the 500,000 people who are victims of identity scammers each year, here are some things you can do to protect yourself, both online and offline:

  • Never send personal information such as credit card or social security numbers by email. Think of email the same as a post card, in terms of security.
  • Don't reveal your password to anyone. At websites that require a login, use something other than your primary userid & password.
  • Be wary of "phishing" scams in emails which provide official-looking (but bogus) links to your online banking, Ebay or Paypal account. Always use a link in your browser favorites or type the website address by hand when logging in to check your online financial accounts.
  • Reveal as little as possible in online profiles, blogs and personal journals. Make sure children in your care understand this also.
  • Be very careful at public Internet terminals, ATMs and phone booths. Someone could be "shoulder surfing" to learn your password, PIN code or calling card number.
  • When you're in a public place and you have to enter private data, use the "two finger" method. Put both of your index fingers on the keyboard or keypad, and pretend to press a key with one hand, while pressing the desired key with the other. With practice, you can enter your password or PIN number in a way that makes it virtually impossible for snoops to detect.
  • When making an online purchase, be sure the merchant uses a secure server. (The site address should begin with HTTPS instead of HTTP.)
  • Don't respond to messages informing you that you've won a prize, if they require you to provide a credit card number, SSN, etc. in order to claim the booty.
  • Don't respond to messages informing you that you've won a prize, period. NEWS FLASH: You didn't win. It's either a spammer or a scammer trying to get money or personal info from you.
  • Keep a close watch on laptops, PDAs and cell phones when you're in a public place. Protect access to these devices with a password.
  • Practice safe computing when using a wireless internet connection. See my articles Is Public Wi-Fi Access Safe? and Wireless Security for more help.
  • If you sell a computer or hard disk, make sure the disk is wiped clean. But deleting files or even formatting the disk may not be enough. I suggest a digital "file shredder". You can find a free program to do this at Download.com by searching for "file shredder" or "secure delete".

Got Bilked?

If you believe that you have become a victim of identity theft, quick action can minimize the damage. Here are some steps you should take immediately if you lose your wallet, passport, or birth certificate, if you have a laptop stolen, or if you note suspicious activity on your credit card.

  • Notify the police in case of fraud or theft, and get a copy of the police report.
  • Contact your bank and inform them if a credit card or other account may have been compromised.
  • Ask the credit bureaus to attach a fraud alert to your report.
  • Contact the post office to see if a change of address has been filed.
  • Ask your Internet provider for a new password and/or email address.

Educate Yourself

I recommed you visit these sites that provide more information on identity theft and tips on protecting your personal privacy. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission has a useful website with information about identity theft, and another resource created by the FTC is ID Theft: When Bad Things Happen To Your Good Name And here are some related articles for additional reading:

Have you had personal experience with identity theft? Post your comments below...

 
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Most recent comments on "Identity Theft"

Posted by:

Biff
08 Feb 2006

It's important to note that credit card fraud happens more often OFFLINE than online. Every time you give your credit card to a waiter, store clerk or telephone salesdroid, you run a risk that they will copy down the number, expiration date and security code, then use it for illegal purposes. That's why it's a good idea to get a card that has a Zero Liability policy.


Posted by:

Bjw
08 Feb 2006

An acquaintenance of mine was recently bilked as she was checking into a hotel at a bustling vacation spot. The clerk that checked my acquaintenance in used her camera phone to take a picture of the credit card and later used it to make a large purchase. For that same reason, it seems prudent to keep your credit card under wraps -- or at least partially covered -- as you're standing in line to make a purchase.


Posted by:

Don
08 Feb 2006

Is there any way I can find out if an application is transmitting information to others? I use a memory resident (I think) spell checking application called As-U-Type. Evidently, it spell checks in any application - Instant Messenger, Notepad, Mail2Web - by recording and processing my key strokes. (It's off at the moment.)

Can you see the possibilities for mischief? Clearly it's not beyond my imagination that this thing could be recording and transmitting all kinds of private info, but it's also a right handy bit of software. Therefore I'd like to monitor data transmitted from my machine.

EDITOR'S NOTE: You could try using a software-based firewall, which will alert you when a program tries to communicate over the Internet. Generally I recommend AGAINST software firewalls, but this is one reasonable use for them.


Posted by:

Peggy Holmes
27 Jun 2008

We have developed an application that works perfect within a cell phone and has the potential to make any who invest in it, the wealthiest on earth. We have designed an open format cell phone that allows the ability to write and put in your own programs. This technology will globally shut down ID theft and credit card fraud. It will also allow individuals to lock their health and personal records. Additionally, this technology will give Homeland Security the ability to deploy electronic passports and visas.

With the alarming rise of identify fraud, the huge market base and use of cell phones, a viable form of security technology is not only in great demand, it is a necessity to continued, economic stability worldwide.

With open access to programmers developing web applications designed to run on devices that use airwaves, as well as applications into computer technology, there is a desperate need to this identity secure technology, we have it. Who are we? Secure Solutions, LLC.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Sounds a lot like the Google Android open platform for cell phones. How is yours different? Or is it based on Android?


Posted by:

Earl D
10 Mar 2009

As we all know, identity theft is just one of many crimes that can damage a person's life. It is always a good idea to protect yourselves from this perpetrators. Internet is the most common base for this criminals, so I suggest that you back up your computer to be always protected. Aside from it protects your identity, backing up your computer is also a nice investment. A computer back-up system, such as an external hard drive or a zip drive, to store things like business records, personal records, or family photos cost that much money. You can lose big time if you don't back-up – identity theft, hacking, or a hardware failure. Before you know it, there goes your tax records for the last ten years – hope you don’t have an audit. It is so easy to lose your vital information. You may not be able to afford not to get a computer back-up, when you think about it.


Posted by:

SEG
29 Mar 2009

My friend's business laptop was just stolen out of his car, I think along with his back up. I don't think he had any security additions to it, it is just a year or two old, though, so perhaps something was build in. Any advice?

EDITOR'S NOTE: If there was no physical security device, power-on password, WIndows password, or file encryption, then he's hosed. Sorry...


Posted by:

SKM
03 Jan 2010

Not sure what happened but I'm a victim of identity theft. I have been using antivirus software and I've been very careful (or so I thought)but a few weeks ago I remember getting a message on my screen saying that my computer has been compromised. I had to unplug the computer to get it to shut down. Now, my most recent credit card bill shows a couple unauthorized charges. I've informed my bank and they have cancelled the card and will be sending me a new one. As for the payment owed, I won't be hearing anything from them until tomorrow. I've read about US agencies that deal with identity theft, however I'd like to find an agency that handles issues related to international crimes. The purchases made on my card are from stores in Italy. I'm not in America, I'm in Asia. Can you direct me to a reputable site please? Thanks.

EDITOR'S NOTE: I think your bank would be the best source of help for this.


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