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Identity theft and the Internet is a match made in heaven – for thieves. For them, the Internet is a 24/7 cash machine that just keeps paying out from other people's accounts.
Virtual identity thieves want exactly what real world identity thieves want: to capture your personal information and use it to create a new identity that will be used for their own monetary or material gain – and leaving you to bear all the liability. Just as you need to protect your credit card, bank, and personal information in the real world, you need to protect it online. Here are a few basic self-defense tactics:
Password-protect everything. Use passwords to access information and programs on your physical devices like computers, PDAs and cell phones. And refrain from using the option to “Remember My Password” for online accounts – if any of your devices are lost or stolen, a thief would have quick and unfettered access to every site you visited and be able to gain access using your stored password.
Think twice before using public Internet kiosks. Your “digital footprint” is captured on every computer you use. Web sites you visit are stored in the cache of the computer and if you haven't properly logged off of a personal account, your personal information may be accessible to others. Even worse, “keylogging” software is available that invisibly captures every keystroke made so that user names and passwords can be extracted. In a recent case, the Department of Justice successfully prosecuted a man who had installed keylogging software in 14 New York area Kinko's stores.
Educate yourself about identity theft phishing and pharming scams. Innocent e-mails and legitimate-looking web sites can be deceiving. Never click on active links embedded in e-mails or download attachments from unknown senders. An updated list of known phishing scams is archived at AntiPhishing.org.
Have you ever received an e-mail telling you you've been pre-approved for a great refinance loan for hundreds of thousands of dollars? How about an e-mail from your “banking institution” asking you to click on a link to update your account?
Attempts at online identity theft are landing in your “in” box every day disguised as legitimate offers and announcements. E-criminals know they're going to hook a few – and they actually hook a lot. So what kind of protection is there against these identity theft phishing scams?
“Antiphishing toolbars” are designed to stop online id theft scams like phishing. Offered free to customers by ISPs like AOL, major web browsers like Microsoft Explorer, and other companies like eBay, they serve as a warning device about Web sites that cloak their true addresses. However, a recent study conducted by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University showed results of an 85 percent effectiveness rate, which may sound pretty good but can give users a false sense of security. The study also noted each had a degree of false positives – legitimate sites that were wrongly identified as phishing sites.
Companies will continue to improve on the effectiveness of antiphishing software, and e-criminals will continue to improve on ways to get around them. Your best defense is education – and a little common sense. If you don't know the sender of an e-mail, don't click on the imbedded link or download an attachment. Legitimate e-mails from companies and banks you do business with won't include links to your personal account.
It is easy to get lulled into a false sense of security when guarding against online identity theft with all of the anti-virus, anti-spyware and other protective software available. In addition to relying on technology to keep you safe from identity theft on the Internet, it's wise to also apply old-fashioned common sense to self-monitor security checks during your online activity.
One simple precaution is to look for visual indicators of secure sites. Whenever you access a site where you will be entering personal or sensitive information, look for the locked padlock image on the Internet browser's status bar. Alternately, make sure the URL address begins with “https://” rather than just http://. While there is no guarantee of the site's security, the absence of these indicators is a clear warning that the web site is not secure.
If you use Outlook or a similar e-mail program, you can also check for fraudulent active links embedded in e-mails. Without clicking on the link, roll your cursor over the link. In the bar at the bottom left of the window, you'll see the URL address for the link. If it is unrecognizable or suspicious in any way, don't click! In fact, unless you are confident you know the sender, don't click at all. Likewise, be very cautious of downloading e-mail attachments – even from people you do know. Viruses travel from one unsuspecting victim to another and friends can inadvertently be sharing infected files with you.
Online identity theft continues to be a growing concern for both individuals and law enforcement. Identifying and capturing nameless, faceless thieves who could be located anywhere in the world is no easy task. While organizations and law enforcement agencies continue to hunt down and prosecute cyber identity theft criminals, a big responsibility lies with individuals to learn how to protect their personal information from being stolen.
By now, anyone who spends a good amount of time online has heard of identity theft phishing scams. Usually via e-mail, ID thieves attempt to trick people into giving them personal information like social security numbers, credit card or bank account numbers and passwords. Fraudulent web sites are embedded into the e-mail with a clickable link. Under the guise of “updating” your account information, or “verifying” your password, victims click on the link, enter their information, and are none-the-wiser that they've just donated all the information an ID thief needs to steal their identity.
If you know what to look out for, you can avoid falling prey to a phishing scam. Not so easy to detect is the latest form of online ID theft – pharming. Without your knowledge, a virus or malicious software program is installed on your computer that hijacks your Web browser. When you type in the URL for a web site, you are seamlessly redirected to a fake copy of the same site. All the information you enter on this site can now be stolen and fraudulently used.
One of the greatest protections from phishing activity is anti-virius software that scans incoming messages for suspicious e-mails and attachments. To help protect from pharming, install anti-spyware software. It will search your computer for questionable programs that track your online activities without your knowledge.
|Jennifer Mathes, Ph.D.|