Identity Theft a Growing Issue for Online Users
How to Prevent Becoming a Victim of Identity Theft
Special Writer 07/27/2006
You are standing at an ATM machine and type in your PIN number. Is the innocent-looking person behind you a "shoulder surfer," memorizing your PIN number to make future withdrawals? If you discard your receipt, will you become the victim of a "Dumpster diver," who has retrieved your account number from the waste basket?
These are just two of the many ways an identity thief can steal your personal information, according to Patricia Fleming, an investigator for the state Department of Banking and Insurance. Ms. Fleming is presenting a series of identity theft awareness forums at the Lawrence Headquarters Branch of Mercer County Library System.
An audience of seven security-conscious men and women listened as Ms. Fleming warned of hazards faced in banks, hotels and restaurants, as well as at your mailbox or personal computer.
For example, when the restaurant server takes your bill and credit card at the end of a meal, are these items brought somewhere out of sight? If so, a "cloning machine, a little device the size of a cell phone," could be used to make an exact copy for that person's use, or to be sold to someone else, said Ms. Fleming.
If you leave your credit card exposed on the restaurant table, someone can walk by and take a picture of the front of the card with a cell phone camera, said Ms. Fleming. Fortunately, most major credit card companies print the security number on the back, she added.
When you return to a hotel room after your meal, the risk of identity theft is still present. Hotel key cards have your name, address and credit card number if you paid by credit card, said Ms. Fleming. When you turn them in, hotel personnel de-magnetize and re-use them, she said.
"I don't return mine and I've never had a problem," said Ms. Fleming, who is one to practice what she preaches.
Ms. Fleming recommended checking your monthly credit card statement for unwanted charges.
"You can tell a credit card company, 'if you see a charge for over $500, you need to call me first before it goes through,'" she suggested. Many companies already follow similar practices, she acknowledged.
Instead of signing the back of your credit card, write "see photo ID," said Ms. Fleming. This will encourage the cashier to make a visual identification, she said.
Ms. Fleming cautioned audience members to become more selective about disclosing personal information.
For example, when her dentist's office asked for her Social Security number, claiming such disclosure is required by law, Ms. Fleming responded that this was not true and did not provide it, she said.
As of January 2006, Medicare numbers will no longer be the same as a recipient's Social Security number, said Ms. Fleming. The state Department of Motor Vehicles, however, still asks for your Social Security number on your check, although to provide it is unwise, she said.
Precautions against identity theft can also be taken at home.
Ms. Fleming advised against leaving mail in your mailbox for pickup. And when ordering checks from the bank, ask when delivery can be expected; or better yet, pick them up yourself, she said.
She recommended purchasing a shredding machine, preferably a "cross shredder" which shreds both vertically and horizontally. Credit and debit card receipts, pre-approved credit card offers, even magazine mailing labels should be shredded, said Ms. Fleming.
"Do not throw anything that has your name on it in your trash without shredding it first," she counseled. Personal computers have opened a new avenue for identity thieves.
Look for the padlock symbol to indicate that an online shopping site is secure, said Ms. Fleming. And do not provide account numbers in response to e-mailed requests purporting to be from banks or credit card companies, she said.
More information on online security will be provided in future forums, said Ms. Fleming.
"Identity Theft, Part II" will be offered at the Lawrence Headquarters Branch of the Mercer County Library System at 7 p.m. today. This session will cover telephone scams and touch briefly on computer security, said Ms. Fleming.
"Identity Theft, Part III" will concentrate on how to protect oneself from computer scams, and will take place at 7 p.m. Aug. 3, she added.
Admission to both programs is free. To register, stop by the circulation desk, call (609) 882-9246, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Some industry advice
By all reports, identity theft is on the rise. With identity theft affecting nearly 10 million people last year and more than 28 million people since 2003, it is equally alarming that almost as many cases go undetected or unreported, according to a recent survey.
While 12 percent of identity fraud cases last year occurred because the victim was active online, more than 45 percent of ID theft victims were unable to show how fraudsters obtained their information.
"Identity theft is a growing, and largely hidden, online threat,"' said David A. Milman, founder and CEO of RESCUECOM, a national computer repair and support company. "Almost every time we service a customer for the first time, the computer is full of viruses, adware, spyware or has incomplete Windows security updates; any of these could result in identity theft. So if you're not completely vigilant, the evil-doers can and will find you."
With that in mind, RESCUECOM is issuing a national set of identity theft Do's and Don'ts. These simple steps are critical in reducing your chance of being an online victim of ID theft.
- Get a copy of your credit report, but save it to an external disk or other device;
- Make sure you have the latest anti-virus and anti-spyware programs on your computer;
- Ensure you update your computer when Microsoft tells you it has new updates available and make sure your Windows updates are configured properly.
- Password protect all your sensitive files, and
- Be cautious when using a Wi-Fi hot spot. Make sure you are on a secure network (usually paid or requiring a password).
- Respond to any e-mails from your bank. If you think the e-mail is legitimate, call your bank's customer service number;
- Send any personal information over a wireless network; avoid paying bills online at a Hot Spot;
- Perform any financial transactions in a hot spot. Unless you know the Web site has an SSL-encrypted connection, (look for the "lock icon" at the bottom right hand of the screen or the letter "s" after http) any financial transaction is a huge risk;
- Let your anti-virus software expire. An unprotected computer will be infected with a virus or spyware within about 15 seconds of being online, and
- Instant message or talk to anyone online that you've not met before. Often social sites and Instant Messengers can be prime grounds for fraudsters and identity thieves posing as others.
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