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How to Defend Yourself Against Identity Theft

Identity theft is a crime whereby criminals impersonate individuals, usually for financial gain. If a thief is able to access your personal personal information, he or she can use it to commit fraud in your name.

What is Identity Theft?

Identity theft is a crime whereby criminals impersonate individuals, usually for financial gain. In today's society, you often need to reveal personal bits of information about yourself, such as your social security number, signature, name, address, phone number, cell number or even banking and credit card information. If a thief is able to access this personal information, he or she can use it to commit fraud in your name.

Armed with your personal information, a malicious person could do any number of things, like apply for loans or new credit card accounts. It's possible they could request a billing address change and run up your existing credit card without your knowledge. A thief could use counterfeit checks and debit cards or authorize electronic transfers in your name and wipe out funds in a bank account.

Identity theft can also go beyond a monetary impact. Thieves can use your information to obtain a driver's license or other documentation that would display their photo but your name and information. With these documents thieves could to obtain a job and file fraudulent income tax returns, apply for travel documents, file insurance claims, or even provide your name and mailing address to police and other authorities if involved in other criminal activities.

Using Information on the Internet for Identity Theft

The outcome of identity theft is usually the same, regardless of how the thief obtains your information. However, the Internet is providing new ways for people to steal your personal information and to commit fraud. Thieves can accomplish their goal several ways such as using Internet chat rooms and spreading Trojan horses that drop key loggers on your computer to transmit any passwords, usernames and credit card numbers you use on your computer back to the thieves. Many online businesses today also store personal information about customers and shoppers on websites, and this provides another way for your personal information to be accessed, without your permission or knowledge.

Additionally, email phishing is another way that thieves can attempt to gather your personal information. Phishing emails falsely claim to be an established legitimate enterprise in an attempt to scam you into surrendering private information that will be used for identity theft. The email will direct you to visit a website where you're asked to update personal information, such as passwords and credit card, social security, and bank account numbers — information the legitimate organization already has. The website, however, is bogus and set up only to steal your information.

Recommended Reading: All About Phishing

Is Internet Identity Theft Cause for Concern?

Internet-based identity theft is a problem and it makes people hesitant about making a purchase online, or signing up for what others consider everyday occurrences such as creating a PayPal account, purchasing from ecommerce sites, using auction sites or even using Internet banking and checking credit card statements online.

While Internet identity theft is definitely a hot topic in the media today, Internet identity theft actually accounts for only a small percentage of the total identity theft fraud cases.

A survey by Javelin Strategy & Research of Pleasanton indicated that identity fraud, as a percentage of of the United States adult population went down to 4 percent between 2003 and 2006. In addition the report also claims that 90 percent of this identity theft takes place through traditional offline channels and not through the Internet.

Using Computer (Cyber) Forensics to Fight Identity Theft

Computer forensics ("cyber forensics") is the application of scientifically proven methods to gather, process, interpret and use digital evidence to provide a conclusive description of cyber crime activities. Cyber forensics also includes the act of making digital data suitable for inclusion into a criminal investigation. Once a thief has obtained data, computers are often used to create false identification, counterfeit checks, and other documents to commit fraud. Computer forensics plays a big role in helping law enforcement officials identify both the victims and perpetrators of identity theft.

How to Protect Yourself: Minimize the Risk

The Federal Trade Commission is one of many organizations that provides valuable facts and information to consumers concerning identity theft, including preventative and resolutions to identity theft concerns. For consumers who believe they are a victim of identity theft, the FTC recommends you take immediate steps to protect yourself such as placing fraud alerts on your credit cards, filing police reports, and filing a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. It is also important to resolve specific fraudulent usage with organizations responsible for your bank accounts, credit cards, driver's license, investment funds, debt collectors and others.

Almost every worldwide government agency responsible for identity theft issues will tell you the same thing: The first step to fighting identity theft is to minimize the risk.

To do this they urge consumers to protect their personal information. Start by asking companies how they use your information, and for online transaction, take a moment to review a website's privacy policy.  For Internet transactions, be sure the Web site offers secure data encryption and other services to protect your personal information.

In offline transactions don't provide credit card numbers, financial account numbers, and personal identifying information over the phone unless you know the communication line is secure. Ideally, you should initiate the phone conversation. 

Lastly, there are recommended everyday practices, such as keeping an eye on postal mail to ensure your bills are arriving when they should be, and taking the time to properly dispose of paper documents that may contain credit card numbers and other identifying personal information.

Remember: The more private and secure you keep your personal identifying information, the less susceptible to identify theft you are.

Key Terms To Understanding Online Identity Theft:

security
In the computer industry, refers to techniques for ensuring that data stored in a computer cannot be read or compromised by any individuals without authorization.

cyber forensics
The application of scientifically proven methods to gather, process, interpret, and to use digital evidence to provide a conclusive description of cyber crime activities.

phishing
The act of sending an e-mail to a user falsely claiming to be an established legitimate enterprise in an attempt to scam the user into surrendering private information that will be used for identity theft.

email spoofing
Forging an e-mail header to make it appear as if it came from somewhere or someone other than the actual source.

Did You Know...

According to two studies done in July 2003 (Gartner Research and Harris Interactive), approximately 7 million people became victims of identity theft in the prior 12 months. That equals 19,178 per day, 799 per hour, 13.3 per minute. [Source Identity Theft resource Center]




Based in Nova Scotia, Vangie Beal is has been writing about technology for more than a decade. She is a frequent contributor to EcommerceGuide and managing editor at Webopedia. You can tweet her online @AuroraGG.





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