Identity theft has exploded in the last decade as a problem to the point where it is now of major concern to all. Those who fall victim to it are not only vulnerable to considerable material hardship, but also to significant inconveniences when trying to restore their identities and to undo the damage done.
What is worse: the ID theft threat has grown, with the increasing sophistication of information technology, to the point where location, distance, language, culture and environment are often irrelevant to the possibility of falling victim to this phenomenon.
Identity Theft is a broad term which encompasses a number of more specific phenomena. Credit Card fraud is the most common form of this. But broadly speaking, ID fraud consists of the appropriation of a person's personal information which then allows the perpetrator to immitate their victim in a virtual environment where the vital pieces of information stolen are the key elements to creating accounts through which one may obtain services or puchase goods.
Key Elements of Personal Data Relevant to Identity Theft
The important pieces of personal information ID thieves look for are your:
Date of Birth
Credit Card Information
Social Security Number
Protecting all of these at all times requires careful thought and a complete reassessment of ones lifestyle and habits. For example. It is not only necessary to protect physical documents bearing this information. It is also necessary to guard against electronic means by which this information can be surreptitiously obtained. We give two examples.
Phishing is the sending of spam emails designed to entice victims to supply their personal information to a fraudster. One way of doing this is to disguise the emails as correspondences from popular online companies where many people have accounts containing their personal information, such as banks or payment companies. Victims are persuaded to click on links that send them to fraudulent sites where they are asked to enter their personal information ostensibly to correct errors or data associated with the company being immitated.
Another method is to get victims to click on links which activate executeble code from a remote server which scans a victim's hard drive for personal information. Never click on a link from an anonymous email solicitation. One quick method of verification is to place your cursor over the link offered in the email. Most often, this will indicate the actual, true url of the link on your status bar. If this url does not match the url you are expecting from the link offered, be immediately suspicious. This is far from foolproof, though and is not offered as a means to verify the authenticity of a link. It is merely one way to detect the inauthenticity of a link.
Hacking of Databases
This is particularly distressing as a potential problem because it essentially involves noculpability on the part of the victim. It only requires that a trusted company you have submitted your personal information to become themselves a victim of identity thieves. Encryption protocols and data storage requirements are quite advanced and stringent at present, but they are not failsafe and they are not invulnerable. Many data management experts now feel that widely used encryption standards are no longer sufficient to protect information from a new generation of Identity thieves.
There are a number of ID protection services available. many financial institutions such as banks offer these services as well. They are absolutely worth considering, to obtain the best professional protection possible. However, absent that, there are some things one can do to lessen the possiblility of becoming victim to ID fraudsters:
Do not keep your social security number with you in written form
Do not simply throw out bank statemnts, old checkbooks, store account information and so on with your trash without first shredding these documents.
On the phone, never give out your credit card information to solicitors or salespeople of companies you have no reason to trust. Verify the identity of the company making the call (if they call you) or else ask to be sent a solicitation by regular mail via their official forms and letterheads.
Make sure your online accounts which have your personal information are secure. This refers particularly to passwords. Create a system of password handling which does not cause you to repeat much of the password accross several accounts. This repitition makes remembering the passwords easier, but it also makes having your account compromised easier.
There are number of very useful resources online to learn more about protecting yourself. The FTC's Identity Theft site provides excellent information on protecting yourself and detecting problems.