Identity theft is a crime whose prevalence has grown to affect 8.6 million families as of 2010, with annual losses exceeding $13 billion, according to the United States Bureau of Justice. Identity theft can destroy a person’s credit rating, and in some cases, lead to legal troubles over crimes they didn’t commit or tax liabilities they didn’t incur. The key to avoiding becoming a victim of identity theft is to protect one’s personal information from unauthorized access and use. This means that consumers will need to be aware of the ever-evolving methods which thieves use to obtain personal information. These techniques include phishing and a variety of online scams.
Why is it Important to Protect Your Personal Information?
The crime of identity theft is becoming increasingly common in America. In just five years, between 2005 and 2010, it increased by a third, with many more incidents going unreported. The consequences of not protecting one’s personal information from the threat of identity theft can be devastating. It may be impossible for a victim to undo the damage done to their credit rating, which means that they may be unable to acquire loans, buy a house, or even qualify for some jobs that require credit checks for employment. Perfectly law-abiding citizens have been imprisoned for crimes committed by people who stole their identities, and it is possible for criminals to commit terrorist acts using other unsuspecting people’s names. Even children can become the victims of identity theft. Since children have no credit ratings, criminals now use their identity to buy homes and cars or avoid taking responsibility for traffic tickets or accidents. Children only find out what has happened when they grow up and attempt to get college loans or credit cards, only to find their credit has already been ruined.
- Identity Theft Reported By Households Rose 33 Percent From 2005 To 2010: A press release by the Bureau of Justice Statistics concerning identity theft. Contains information on how many people are victimized by identity theft, as well as how much money is lost to this crime.
- Identity Theft: How It Happens, Its Impact on Victims, and Legislative Solutions: A Privacy Rights Clearinghouse web page about identity theft. This article discusses estimates on how many victims there are per year, what contributes to the spread of the problem, and the consequences of identity theft to its victims.
- Children Face Dire Consequences of Identity Theft: A web page about the consequences of identity theft for children. This article points out how often it happens, and the problems that child victims face when they try to get credit as adults.
- An Identity Theft Nightmare: A CBS News consumer alert story about identity theft. This story is about the trials of one victim of identity theft, how he was victimized by a security breach at ChoicePoint, and what he had to go through in order to recover.
What is Phishing?
Social engineering is a method of committing fraud by which a criminal tricks someone into granting them otherwise unauthorized access to information. One of the most common forms of social engineering is the act of phishing. Phishing is a slang term for when someone sends out emails that pose as messages from a trusted entity, such as a bank, to potential victims. The intent is to trick the victim into giving up their personal information via email, or to visit a website that is run by the criminal, and to input their information. Phishing was first known to be used on the America Online service with the intent to gain access to the service, but now it is primarily used to fraudulently acquire names, Social Security numbers, bank accounts, and other information crucial to committing identity theft.
- Evolution of Phishing Attacks (PDF): A white paper by the Anti-Phishing Working Group. This PDF document explains what phishing is, and how it has changed over the years. It also includes examples.
- Phishing: A primer on phishing by OnGuardOnline. Visitors can find examples of what phishing attacks are, as well as how to respond.
- Phishing Explanation: A web page that explains the nature of phishing. It explains what phishing is, as well as its related crime, known as “pharming”, and it offers advice on how to avoid becoming a victim.
- Phishing Scams: A web page by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation about phishing. This resource outlines what phishing is and how to respond. It also includes videos.
How to Recognize and Avoid Online Scams
For identity thieves, the lure of online scams lies in how simple it is to steal victims’ personal information. Most scams are based on the assumption that people will fall for fake alerts or easy money schemes. Lottery winnings and inheritance notices should always be regarded as a fraudulent scheme. Spelling and grammatical errors are a common giveaway of a phishing scam, especially when found in emails from Government agencies or financial institutions. Legitimate businesses will never ask for personal information via email.
- Common Fraud Schemes: A list of various frauds that consumers should recognize and avoid. Includes identity theft schemes and how to safeguard against them.
- Tips on How to Identify a Scam or Fraud: An online publication by the Consumer Fraud Reporting organization. This page is a bulleted list of ways to spot and foil scams both online and offline, such as over the phone.
- Recognizing and Avoiding Email Scams (PDF): A document by the United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team that pertains to email scams. This informative resource shows readers how to recognize different types of scams, from fraudulent work at home schemes to discount software loaded with viruses and spyware, all of which present a major threat of identity theft.
- Identity Theft Information: A publication by Scamwatch, a department of the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission. Visitors can find out about identity theft scams such as fake fraud alerts as well as resume scams, which are used to harvest personal information for fake job offers.
- Watch Out for Job Seeker Scams Stealing Business Names: A Better Business Bureau article about the rise of identity theft schemes targeting job seekers. This story explains how criminals pose as legitimate businesses and use other techniques to harvest personal information from people who are looking for work.
Steps You Can Take to Protect Your Identity Online
To avoid becoming a victim of identity theft, it is necessary to keep one’s personal information a secret. Social security numbers and passwords should never be shared with strangers, nor should the information be written down on paper. Vital information should only be given to trusted persons such as spouses, who might need the information in an emergency. If possible, one should commit passwords to memory, and avoid using the same password for all accounts.
- Preventing Identity Theft: A Guide For Consumers (PDF): A publication by the National Crime Prevention Council about how to prevent identity theft. Contains facts and figures, various identity theft techniques.
Consumer should check their credit reports at least once a year. This is almost always the first place that records of fraudulent credit card and other financial activity will show up. In addition one should closely inspect their monthly bills as soon as they arrive. Look for strange purchases as well as attempts to acquire loans, credit cards or even rental agreements. Acquiring background checks on oneself may also expose the existence of traffic tickets that were incurred by an identity thief, as well as employment fraud in which one’s Social Security number was used by someone else to secure a job. It is also possible to restrict access to one’s credit report, which will make it more difficult for an identity thief to fraudulently open a new account.
Internet scams are constantly evolving. To avoid becoming a victim of identity theft it will be necessary for users to keep up to date on the latest developments in online fraud. Warning friends and relatives of the latest scams will not only help prevent them from becoming victims, but it may also stop them from handing over others’ information inadvertently. The key to spotting most scams is to remember that anyone offering easy money is most likely trying to trick people out of their money instead. If an email claims that there are riches waiting to be had, and it asks for personal information of any sort, it is almost certainly a trap and the recipient should ignore it or report it, if possible. Emails from banking institutions or Government agencies should never be answered via email; instead, one should directly contact the business, agency or institution in question, using a phone number that they know is legitimate.
- How To Recognize Phishing Email Messages, Links, Or Phone Calls: A Microsoft Corporation website phishing scams. This article contains simplified but detailed explanations about how to identify phishing and how to report them.
Computer security is also a major tool in preventing identity theft. Spam blocking software is essential for filtering emails, as spam may not only be deceptive but also contain e-mail viruses. Strong, complex passwords also slow down hackers who might be interested in committing identity theft, while computer firewall software may prevent spyware and keystroke loggers from transmitting personal information onto the Internet. Anti-virus software is useful for preventing viruses such as Trojan Horse code from taking over a computer and making it give up personal information. Users should keep their web browsers up to date with the latest security patches and utilities, and only share personal information on websites that use strong encryption. Delete all billing notices from online email services as soon as they arrive, to prevent hackers from accessing the information in case they compromise the service. When one is handing over a hard drive for repairs, disposal or to give to someone else, it is necessary to completely wipe the drive several times over, to ensure that no personal information remains accessible.
- Prevent Identity Theft – Guide for Preventing ID Theft: A website dedicated to helping people stop identity theft. Contains a wealth of information on prevention techniques and computer security tips, as well as how to recognize when it has occurred.
- How To Prevent Identity Theft: A consumer guide to identity theft prevention. Includes information on guarding one’s identity and how to avoid becoming vulnerable.
If any type of suspicious activity appears in such documents as bills or credit reports, it is necessary to respond immediately. A suspected incident of identity theft should be regarded as a sign that there are other unseen incidents that have occurred. This means immediately filing a police report with the local law enforcement agency, usually a police department, as well as filing a report with the Federal Trade Commission. In addition, one must place a fraud alert with all the major credit agencies, as well alert all of their utilities, financial institutions and creditors.
- Responding to Identity Theft: A Georgetown University web page about identity theft. This article talks about how to respond to identity theft and the placing of fraud alerts.
- Responding to Identity Theft FAQs: The Ohio Attorney General’s Frequently Asked Questions page about identity theft. Visitors can find a comprehensive list of actions that one must take to respond to this crime.