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. According to the U.S. Department of Justice,
an estimated 500,000 to 700,000 people a year become victims.
The scope of the problem may be even worse than this,
with the number of consumers who have fallen prey to identity
thieves being 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
who commit identity theft, including international terrorist
cells, says Jonathan J. Rusch, a lawyer with the U.S.
Department of Justice who specializes in fraud prevention,
in a phone interview. Speaking via a phone interview,
Rusch added, “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.”
Now that you’ve gotten the daylights scared out
of you, rest assured that by the very fact that you’re
reading this right now, chances are less likely that you’ll
become victimized. Identity thieves are more successful
against those who don’t stay on top of things.
This is particularly so 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
Typically, you 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, though 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, tips that others have made as well:
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,
available at http://www.internet-track-eraser.com.
- Whenever updating 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, which will be indicated by a
lock symbol at the bottom of your browser window and
the letters “https” in front of the page’s
- If you have any doubts, phone or e-mail the company
first, using a number or address you’ve used
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 http://qspace.iplace.com,
and TrueCredit, at http://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
Identity Theft Resource Center
is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight
Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org