Safeguard Against Identity Theft

Minimize your risk that someone will get their hands on enough of your information to steal your identity.
Melanie Cullen

Unfortunately, phishing is a growing way to steal someone’s identity. And it’s only one way. Identity thieves can take your personal information from your mail box or your home. They can steal your wallet or purse, or convince you to give out personal information. We all have to be on our guard.

Identity theft is the fastest growing white-collar crime. It happens when an identity thief obtains some pieces of your personal information. The thief then uses the information about you?without your knowledge?to commit fraud or theft. The identity thief is disguised as you. The trail leads back to you.

Internet scammers casting about for people’s financial information have a new way to lure unsuspecting victims; it’s called ‘phishing’. Phishing is a high-tech scam that uses spam or pop-up messages to deceive you into disclosing your credit card numbers, bank account information, Social Security Number, passwords, or other sensitive information.

According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), phishers send an email or pop-up message that claims to be from a business or organization that you deal with — for example, your Internet Service Provider (ISP), bank, online payment service, or even a government agency. The message usually says that you need to “update” or “validate” your account information. It might threaten some dire consequence if you don’t respond.

The message directs you to a web site that looks just like a legitimate organization’s site, but it isn’t. The purpose of the bogus site? To trick you into divulging your personal information so the perpetrators can steal your identity and run up bills or commit crimes in your name.

You can be a victim of identity theft even if you never use a computer. Malicious people may be able to obtain personal information (such as credit card numbers, phone numbers, account numbers, and addresses) by stealing your wallet, overhearing a phone conversation, rummaging through your trash (a practice known as dumpster diving), or picking up a receipt at a restaurant that has your account number on it. If a thief has enough information, he or she may be able to impersonate you to purchase items, open new accounts, or apply for loans.

The internet has made it easier for thieves to obtain personal and financial data. Most companies and other institutions store information about their clients in databases; if a thief can access that database, he or she can obtain information about many people at once rather than focus on one person at a time. The internet has also made it easier for thieves to sell or trade the information, making it more difficult for law enforcement to identify and apprehend the criminals.

Many people do not realize just how easily con artists can get valuable personal information without having to break into our homes. In public places, these criminals may engage in “shoulder surfing” where they will watch you from a nearby location as you punch in your telephone number or credit card number. Some even listen in on your conversation if you give your credit-card number over the telephone to a hotel or rental car company.

Even the area near your home or office may not be secure. Some criminals engage in “dumpster diving” going through your garbage cans or a communal dumpster or trash bin — to obtain copies of your checks, credit card or bank statements, or other records that typically bear your name, address, and even your telephone number. These types of records make it easier for criminals to get control over accounts in your name and assume your identity.