Minimize Your Exposure to Identity Theft Online: 4 Simple Steps

Recent advances in technology have helped to streamline and improve the lives of people all over the world. With a swipe of the card we can rent movies and pay for gas. We can use the internet to find better deals on new and used items. We can even go online and order a pizza to be delivered in less than an hour. All of these conveniences that we enjoy are made possible through the use of computers to capture, store, and reproduce data. This same information management technology that we use everyday to enhance our lives is also used by criminals to commit identity theft. The good news is that there are some simple precautions that you can make to minimize your exposure to this type of crime. Identity theft is the use of personal identifying information such as birth date, social security number, or mother’s maiden name to commit fraud. Skilled criminals can use the internet to put together an identity profile for a random individual. These criminals can then take that profile and commit a variety of fraudulent crimes. This type of fraud can range from using a stolen identity to get a credit card under another person’s name to intercepting an electronic transaction and having the funds deposited into an unauthorized account. This type of illegal activity can get your bank accounts frozen bringing your life to a screeching halt. Not to mention what it can do to your credit. Often time’s identity fraud can be more devastating and invasive than having your home broken into. The following tips are some simple practices that you can implement to safe guard yourself against identity theft:

1) Beware of "Phishers" pronounced Fishers.

"Phishing" is one of the most common ways that information is captured using the Internet to commit identity theft. "Phishers" attempt to capture your personal information by sending you emails that look like they are coming from a reputable company that you do business with. The email will say something along the lines of "Urgent! Immediate verification of account information needed. Click on the link below." The email may even provide a phony customer service number to call. Either way it is just a scam to get you to voluntarily give up enough information for the criminal to commit fraud. Beware of such emails. Always call and question the purpose for the verification if you think that the email might be legitimate. Make sure that the link takes you to the official site of the company that you have an account with. If not, leave the page by using the "x" in the top corner of the page to close the window. Do not get tricked into clicking on the link within the window that says "close", "cancel", or "ok". Always use the "x". Effective use of your spam filters, firewalls, and routers can further minimize your exposure.

2) Stop the Spyware and Viruses

Spyware and viruses fall into a category of computer programs called "malware". Malware is any type of computer program that is designed to infect your computer to monitor and record information going in or out of the system. A spyware program or a virus may be designed specifically to capture your banking information when you make a transaction online. Once the identity thief has this information, he or she can open up other credit accounts in your name, redirect Internet transactions, or commit any variety of other fraudulent activities. Usually, malware appears in the form of a pop up window or random link that appears while surfing the net. If you click anywhere on the window, other than the x in the upper right hand corner to close the window, you are basically granting permission to have your computer infected. Other forms of malware can infect your computer when you download programs or music from the Internet with spyware secretly attached. The FDIC, or Federal Deposit Insurance Company, suggests to avoid becoming a victim of malware while using the Internet use should always be cautious of websites that you and your family visit. If you are going to download music or programs from the Internet, only do so from reputable sites. Reading all licensing agreements carefully is also a good idea to make sure that you are not being tricked into agreeing to allow malware onto your computer. The most important thing is to make sure that anytime you are making a transaction online it is being done with a well know company over a secure server. To make sure that the information you are transmitting is secure. Look for the beginning of the web address to start with https://. The "s" means secure. Or look for the gold lock on the bottom right hand corner of most browsers. This is also an indication that the information you are sharing is secure.

3) Protect with Passwords

Many times identity thieves will attempt to gain access to your existing online accounts. They may try to use your credit or debit account to make unauthorized purchases. To protect yourself, place passwords on your credit card, bank, and phone accounts. Avoid using easily available information like your mother's maiden name, your birth date, the last four digits of your SSN or your phone number, or a series of consecutive numbers. When opening new accounts, you may find that many businesses still have a line on their applications for your mother's maiden name. Ask if you can use a password instead. Make any passwords or answers to "secret questions" something that only you could know. Changing some of your more important account passwords from time to time can’t hurt either. If one of your normal passwords does not work when trying to access an account, make sure to call the company that you have the account with immediately to check for unauthorized transactions. Most credit card companies also have their own systems in place to offer you additional identity theft protection.

4) Keep an Eye on It and Act Quickly

To really protect yourself from identity thieves you need to keep a close eye on all of your open accounts. Review all of your statements each month carefully. Look for anything out of the ordinary or unauthorized. Check your credit report as well for any irregularities. You should also be careful who you share information with. Don't give out personal information on the phone, through the mail, or on the Internet unless you've initiated the contact or are sure you know who you're dealing with. Identity thieves are clever, and have posed as representatives of banks, Internet service providers (ISPs), and even government agencies to get people to reveal their SSN, mother's maiden name, account numbers, and other identifying information. Before you share any personal information, confirm that you are dealing with a legitimate organization. Hopefully you will never be a victim of identity theft. However, if you ever have the slightest suspicion that someone may be using your personal information to commit fraud, the best thing that you can do is act quickly. The sooner you take action the more you will be able to contain any damage that is being done. The first thing that you should do is to contact the company that provides the credit account and notify their fraud department. This should automatically freeze the account until the discrepancy can be investigated. Next, contact one of the three major credit bureaus and have a fraud alert placed on your account with (contacting one will alert all three). All of the conversations and correspondences that you have with the credit bureaus or companies where the fraudulent activities occurred should be documented. You will then want to file a police report and get a copy of the report for your records. Finally, you should report the fraud to the appropriate state agencies and the FTC. You can contact the FTC with an identity theft report directly at

Being aware of how identity theft occurs and keeping a close eye on your open accounts is the best protection against this type of fraud. According to the Identity Theft Resource Center, the average victim of identity theft spends an average of more than $1400 dollars in out of pocket expenses to correct the situation. This means that prevention really does pay off. Don’t become a victim.

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