Imagine having your bank account drained, being unable to use your credit cards, and seeing your credit rating trashed. Imagine then spending hour after hour trying to clear your good name and get your life back together.
Identity theft is the number-one consumer complaint reported to the Federal Trade Commission’s Consumer Sentinel Database. An estimated 500,000 to 700,000 people a year become victims, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
The scope of the problem may be even worse than this. The number of consumers who have fallen prey to identity thieves is significantly underreported, according to a new report by market research firm Gartner Inc. It estimates that 3.4 percent of U.S. consumers became victims over the previous year.
It’s not just individuals but also organized groups, including international terrorist cells, who commit identity theft, said Jonathan J. Rusch, a lawyer with the U.S. Department of Justice who specializes in fraud prevention, in a phone interview. “They’re using more and more sophisticated techniques to entice people to grant them access to their personal information and more and more sophisticated technology to access it behind their backs,” he said.
Now that you’ve had the daylights scared out of you, rest assured–by the very fact that you’re reading this right now, chances are less that you’ll become victimized. Identity thieves are more successful against those who don’t stay on top of things.
This is particularly true online, where identity thieves can have an easier time finding information about you and profiting from it, if you’re not careful. The fastest-growing technique is “phishing,” a practice of using “spoofed,” or fake, e-mails and Web sites to trick you into revealing your Web site password, Social Security number, checking account information, credit card data, mother’s maiden name, and other personal information.
When an identity thief is after you, it’s typical to receive an e-mail that appears to be from the customer service department of America Online or an Internet service provider, the online auction company eBay, the online payment service PayPal, or a Web retailer you’ve done business with. The e-mail contends there’s a problem with your account and indicates you need to update your billing information. You’re then directed to a Web site that appears to be from the same company but has been set up only to steal your identity.
Federal law and the laws of many states stipulate harsh penalties for identity theft, although reports indicate that such penalties are seldom meted out. Even if they were, legislation by itself won’t protect you. You need to cover your own assets.
Internet service provider EarthLink has been especially active in trying to fight the problem. It suggests these guidelines, suggestions others have made as well:
● Whenever you update your information online, access the particular Web site through your Favorites or Bookmarks menu or by typing in its address manually. Don’t follow a link in an e-mail you receive.
● Most legitimate companies store your personal information on a secure Web page; check for a lock symbol at the bottom of your browser window and the letters “https” (note the s, which stands for “secure”) in front of the page’s address.
● If you have any doubts, phone or e-mail the company first, using a number or address you’ve used before.
You should also use antivirus software and, if you connect to the Internet using a cable or DSL modem, firewall software.
When creating passwords, make them difficult to crack–use a combination of letters and numbers.
Keep up to date with Microsoft security patches.
If you donate an old computer, shred sensitive files on its hard disk with a program such as the free AbsoluteShield File Shredder, at www.internet-track-eraser.com.
Identity thieves can also get information about you the old-fashioned way, sorting through a trash bin or jotting down credit card information at a store. So don’t neglect low-tech safeguards, such as shredding financial statements, checking your credit card bill every month, and reviewing your credit rating every year or so.
Two well-regarded sites for checking your own credit rating online are QSpace, at qspace.iplace.com, and TrueCredit, at www.truecredit.com.
If you do become a victim of identity theft, report it to law enforcement as soon as possible. You can use the Federal Trade Commission’s toll-free number (1-877-ID-THEFT) or online complaint form. Prompt reporting will help the authorities pursue leads and find the bad guys.
For more information about identity theft, check out the following Web sites:
Federal Trade Commission Identity Theft
Department of Justice’s Identity Theft and Fraud
Identity Theft Resource Center
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.netaxs.com/~reidgold/column.