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.
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".
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.
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:
- Remove Your Listing From Online Directories?
- Background Checks
- Is Privacy History?
- Does IP Address Reveal my Physical Location?
Have you had personal experience with identity theft? Post your comments below...
This article was posted by Bob Rankin on 7 Feb 2006
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Article information: AskBobRankin -- Identity Theft (Posted: 7 Feb 2006)
Copyright © 2005 - Bob Rankin - All Rights Reserved