Your identity is at risk, as thieves are trying to steal your information for use to obtain money, credit or even expensive medical procedures. The average victim spends 30 to 40 hours rectifying the problem.
Some of the e-threats to your identity are:
Phishing. You get an e-mail that appears to be from your bank, credit union, or an online service instructing you to click on a link and provide information to verify your account.
Pharming or spoofing. Hackers redirect a legitimate Web site's traffic to an impostor site, where you'll be asked to provide confidential information.
Smishing. This is phishing done with text messaging on your smart phone. It instructs you to visit a bogus Web site.
Spyware. Software downloaded on your computer when you have opened an attachment, clicked on a pop-up or downloaded a song or a game. Criminals can use spyware to record your keystrokes and obtain credit card numbers, bank-account information and passwords when you make purchases or conduct other business online. They also can access confidential information on your hard drive.
You don't need to have a computer to become a victim.
Vishing -- voice phishing. You get an automated phone message asking you to call your bank, credit union, or credit card company. Even your caller ID is fooled. You call the number and are asked to punch in your account number, PIN or other personal information.
Bank-card "skimming." Crooks use a combination of a fake ATM slot and cameras to record your account information and PIN when you use a cash machine. Your credit or debit card also can be skimmed by a dishonest store or restaurant worker armed with a portable card reader.
Crooks will steal your wallet or go through your mail or trash.
Most identity theft cases involve credit card fraud. Checking accounts are the second most popular. Other identity theft cases involved the following:
At least 250,000 people have been the victim of medical identity theft in the last several years. Crooks use fraudulently obtained personal information to get expensive medical procedures or trick insurance companies into paying for procedures that were not done.
5% of reported identity theft cases are children. The fraud goes undetected for years until the child becomes an adult and applies for credit.
Tips to protect yourself
You can take steps to protect yourself from identity fraud:
Keep your confidential information private. Your bank, credit union, or credit card company won't call or e-mail to ask for your account information.
Keep an inventory of everything in your wallet and your PDA, including account numbers. Don't keep your Social Security card in your wallet.
Stop getting banking and credit card information in the mail.
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Monitor your bank, credit union, and credit card transactions for unauthorized use. Crooks with your account numbers will usually start small to see if you will notice.
Keep your vehicle registration and insurance forms in a sealed envelope in your glove box and lock it and your car when at home or away.
If you conduct business online, use your own computer. A public computer is less secure, as is wireless Internet.
Look for suspicious devices and don't let anyone stand nearby when you use an ATM. Take your card and receipt with you. Do not keep your PIN number in your wallet.
Don't store credit card numbers and other financial information on your cell phone.
If you're job hunting using resume Web sites, don't apply unless the employer has a verifiable address.
Protect your computer from vulnerability:
Keep system and internet browser software up to date. Install anti-virus, anti-spyware and firewall protection, and keep them up to date as well.
If you use wireless Internet access, make sure that your wireless connection is encrypted. Get help from someone who knows how to setup a secure wireless network.
Back up your data and store it away from your computer.
Don't open e-mails from strangers. Malware can be hidden in embedded attachments and graphics files.
Don't open attachments unless you know who sent them and what they contain. Never open attachments with a .exe extension. Configure Windows so that the file extensions of known file types are not hidden.
Don't click on pop-ups. Configure Windows or your internet browser to block them.
Don't provide your credit card number online unless you are making a purchase from a Web site you trust. Reputable and secure sites will always direct you to a secure page with an URL starting with https://.
Use strong passwords: at least six characters, including at least one symbol and number, and no reference to your name or other personal information. Change passwords regularly.
Never send a user name, password or other confidential information via e-mail.
Consider turning off your computer when you're not using it or at least putting it in standby mode.
Don't keep passwords, tax returns or other financial information on your hard drive.
Steps to clean up the mess
If you suspect your identity may be compromised, place a fraud alert with the three credit bureaus (Experian, Trans Union,and Equifax). When you place an alert, you are entitled to a free copy of your credit report from each credit bureau. You are also entitled to one free credit report from each credit bureau a year. Stagger your requests so that you get a report every four months.
If you are the victim of identity theft, take the following steps:
File an identity theft report with the local police and also get a copy. File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. You may also be able to file a complaint with the State Attorney's Office.
Close accounts that have been compromised. Contact each company by phone and again by certified letter. Make sure the company notifies you in writing that the disputed charges have been erased. Document each conversation and keep all records.
Contact the three credit bureaus and place a seven-year fraud alert.
Contact the three credit bureaus to have them begin the process of having the fraudulent information removed from your credit reports.
Consider purchasing identity theft insurance. It cannot protect you from becoming a victim of identity theft, but it can help you pay the cost of reclaiming your financial identity.