Caught in the Web
Better Safe Than Sorry: Identity Theft


by Laura Emery, Field Editor

Computer with lock around it (image) 

In the huge mass of humanity, we are identified by strings of data, in the form of numbers and letters ó the most recognizable being full name, 9-digit social security number, date of birth, and bank account and credit card numbers. Itís who we are, the combination of letters and numbers that set us apart from the millions of other people who cohabit this planet with us. We commit these important numbers to memory, and we donít give them to just anybody and for just any reason; they become a part of us, a part of our identity.

But what happens when that identity is stolen from you and your existence, your reputation, is compromised? What do you do then?

Identity theft is a crime that can be committed anonymously and easily, with its impact on the victim devastating and, sometimes, the damage irreparable. Victims can spend years and, sometimes, thousands of dollars trying to get their credit record and name back to normal. During this period, they can lose job opportunities, be denied loans for education, housing and cars, or even be arrested for crimes they did not commit.

How does a thief gain access to the information he or she needs to successfully steal your identity? Information can be stolen from a consumer in a variety of ways: pilfering your trash or mailbox for pre-approved credit card offers, discarded credit card receipts or other personal information; stealing your purse or wallet; looking (or taking photos with camera phones) over your shoulder at an ATM while you are accessing your account, to glean personal information for fraudulent purposes; and by calling you on the telephone, posing as a solicitor in order to get you to provide your personal information. They can also gain access to your personal information via the Internet.

The Doors and Windows Are Locked, But Ö

You may be careful about locking your doors and windows, but how cautious are you at securing the personal information you store on your computer? The invention of the computer has spawned many wonderful capabilities ó among them, easy and quick access to a greater variety of information. On the flip side, thereís also no end to the information a skilled, experienced identity thief could get his or her dirty hands on. Average computer users probably have no idea how much of their information is floating around in cyberspace, unprotected and available at the click of a mouse.

To sign up for services online, many companies require you to provide personal information. Information you send over the Internet can be intercepted more easily than most people might expect. Itís important that you use a secure browser, or at least software that encrypts or scrambles information you send out. When submitting information via the Internet, be sure to look for the ďlockĒ icon on the browserís status bar to be certain your personal information is secure during transmission.

The latest encryption technology uses a Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), which is an Internet security protocol used by Internet browsers and Web servers to transmit sensitive information. You can make sure you are on an SSL by checking the URL (Uniform Resources Locator), where the http at the very beginning of the address should change to https.

Another thing to keep in mind is that you may submit information to a secure server or a reputable Web site, but whoís to say that there wonít be a breach in security on their side of the transaction? If a thief hacks into the businessí files or hijacks their modem, the thief gains unauthorized access to a database of hundreds, perhaps even millions, of client accounts that contain a slew of personal information.

You should always read the fine print. Look for Web site privacy policies to find out how the company maintains accuracy, access, security, and control of personal information collected. Will your information be used for other purposes, and, if so, what other purposes? Will the company share or sell your information to third parties? You need to know this before sending your personal information flying haphazardly through dangerous cyberspace, where identity thieves are lurking around every other corner. Identity theft is a scary thing, so it is always better to be safe than sorry.

7 Tips to Avoid Identity Theft

1. Use only one credit card for all online purchases.

2. Use the latest Internet browser.

3. Permanently delete personal information and files before disposing of a computer.

4. Keep records of all your online transactions.

5. Donít open or download files sent to you by people you donít know.

6.   Read the privacy policy on Web sites where you submit information.

7. Donít give out personal information on the Internet unless you know who you are dealing with.


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