Protecting Your Personal and Financial Identity OnlineJan 6th, 2009 | By Mike Dailey | Category: Internet and Related Issues
Identity Theft is a crime in which an impostor obtains key pieces of personal identifiable information such as Social Security numbers and driver’s license numbers and uses them for their own personal gain. It can start with lost or stolen wallets, pilfered mail, or even the use of a credit card at the local mall. According to the Federal Trade Commission, identity theft ranked No. 1 on the list of reported frauds committed against American consumers in 2007. Overall, consumers reported fraud losses of more than $1.2 billion, with a median monetary loss per person of $349, according to the FTC report.
As the reports of consumer identity theft have surged, so to have the occurrences of identity theft occurring online. Thanks to the Internet you can order books, clothing, furniture and appliances online; purchase airline tickets for a trip around world or reserve a hotel room for a weekend getaway; download music, movies and video games and even access your bank account 24 hours a day. With all the conveniences brought to us through the Internet, the flip-side, however, is that the Internet — and the anonymity it affords — can also provide online scammers, hackers, and identity thieves access to your computer, personal information, finances, and more.
If you think no one would be interested in your personal information, you should think again. In fact, according to a Federal Trade Commission survey, there are millions of victims reporting the theft of their personal and financial information every year. It’s often difficult for the victim to determine how thieves obtained their personal information, but in many cases it starts when their personal information is stolen online or from their home computer while connected to the Internet.
A growing concern among security experts is the storage or use of confidential personal and financial information on the home computer and how little consumers know or do about protecting that information. Identity thieves use a host of methods to steal that information, from the very simple and obvious to the complex and well-disguised, all while you are online. Some of the most popular methods involved the use of a computer virus designed to secretly retrieve personal information from your home computer, or an email or web site disguised to trick you in to providing personal information—referred to as a phishing scam. The truth is that anyone can be a victim of online identity theft, and at any time, once your personal information is exposed to the Internet.
With all of the bad news the theft of your identity can bring, the good news is that online identity theft can be prevented. By following a few simple steps you can help to secure your personal and financial information and keep yourself safe and secure while online.
Step 1. Protect Your Information
If you’re asked to provide personal information on a web site — such as your name, email or home address, phone number, account numbers, or Social Security number — find out how it will be used and how it will be protected before you share it. Avoid disclosing your Social Security number to any web site or through email unless it is unavoidable to do so. Reasonable requests for your SSN include such things as opening an online bank account or applying for a mortgage or student loan. Web sites such as retail stores and online auction services should have no valid reason for asking for this information.
Step 2. Ensure Your Transaction is Secure
Make sure those web sites where you enter personal information use SSL (secure socket layer) encryption. SSL ensures that all data passed between the web site and your Internet browser remains private and unchanged. SSL is an industry standard means of data security, and it is used by millions of web sites to protect transactions. Most web browsers display a padlock icon on the top or bottom of the browser window to indicate if the site you are accessing has appropriate security layers.
Step 3. Refuse Online Offers
Do not reply to or accept offers received via email or web site “pop ups” for credit cards, loans, contests, or other offers that request or require personal information. If you want to open a credit card account or apply for a loan, go directly to a reputable bank or lender web site and begin the application process from there.
Step 4. Watch Your Email Habits
Use care in replying to emails from unknown senders. Avoid clicking on links in emails that take you automatically to a web site, and instead type the web site address directly in to your browser. These web links, while convenient, can be manipulated to take you to a web site disguised as an official or well known web site, yet programmed to record the personal information you enter at the site. Never click on a link in an email that is asking you to enter personal information.
Step 5. Secure Your Computer
Purchase virus protection software and a personal computer firewall and keep them updated and running regularly on your computer (there are also many high-quality alternatives that are free for home use.) These software packages help to detect and block information-stealing programs and web sites from accessing your home computer.
Step 6. Strengthen Your Passwords
When setting up an account or password on a web site, select passwords that are hard to guess and that have nothing to do with the personal information you have provided to that web site. Never use birthdays, anniversaries, pet names, or the names of your children as a password as these are easily guessed by people that may know you. The best passwords use a combination of numbers, upper and lower-case letters and special characters such as punctuation marks. Avoid using the same password at different web sites, especially those containing your personal financial or credit information.
Using a “key phrase” makes it easier for you to remember your password. For example, instead of using a hard to remember password like “A01bb12d” think instead of a meaningful and easy to remember phrase, and then reduce it to a password. “My dog has four legs!” could easily be remembered as “MyD0g4L3g!” making it a very difficult password for someone to guess.
While no means of security is guaranteed to keep you safe from online identity theft, employing these steps and maintaining vigilance over your financial accounts and credit report will help to make you too difficult a target for an identity thief. When it comes to online identity theft, protecting your private information is the key to not becoming a victim.
For more information on online identity theft, prevention, and what to do if you feel you may be the victim of identity theft, visit the Federal Trade Commission’s Identity Theft web site at http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/microsites/idtheft.