Protect yourself – Be aware of identity theft

Living with technology — the computers, smartphones and tablets, and online account access that help us manage our lives — involves risk. We must be aware of the risks, for we are all vulnerable. Cyber criminals harness technology to steal our personal and business information for their own financial benefit or profitable resale. They even open bank accounts in the name of deceased individuals.

There are over 10,000 identity theft rings in this country, and a staggering number of identity theft operations overseas that target U.S. consumers and businesses. Underground black markets swap information about us to complete identities to sell to others to make purchases, open accounts or procure social security cards. Cyber criminals that know how to write sophisticated codes may install invisible malware onto personal or business computers, resulting in security breaches. They may even be able to obtain screen shots of your activity, steal your user IDs and passwords, or conduct “live” video monitoring of your online transactions or the companies with which you do business.

Presumably these companies protect your data, but we are all too familiar with data breaches at Target, Home Depot, and a number of other retailers. Find out if your employer offers identity theft protection and take advantage of it, or investigate and obtain outside services that provide “identity theft insurance,” monitoring your activity and restoring your identity if it has been stolen. Restoring your identity is complex and time-consuming, not to mention the financial nightmare.

When buying something online, look for the icon of a lock in the lower right-hand corner of your browser window. If it’s there, the site is secure. If not, don’t use it, even if it looks professional. Do not answer any email messages asking you for personal information. Fraudsters excel at composing messages appearing to be from legitimate businesses, but no legitimate enterprise asks for personal identifying information through email messages. Do not share too much information about yourself or where you are when visiting chat rooms, using social media, commenting on blogs, and so on. Study the safety features and privacy settings, and allow only people that know you to access information you want to share with them.

Don’t use your laptop or hard drive to archive your personal information. Store it on an external source. Even if you erase files, they may be retrieved. Use a “wipe” utility program to overwrite the entire hard drive. Make sure it’s a program meeting the strictest standards for removing information, including those of the U.S. Department of Defense and National Industrial Security Program. Make sure you have installed firewalls and other security features, i.e. anti-virus and anti-spyware programs, and keep the firewalls up-to-date.

When working with your personal or financial information, use your own secure computer. It is not a good idea to use a friend’s or a library or coffee shops where you expose your personal information to others. Be sure your passwords are strong – make them complex with a combination of numbers, letters, and characters if possible. Never store your passwords on your laptop or home computer for that matter.

And just because someone asks you for personal information over the phone or via mail or Internet, do not automatically respond. Provide your Social Security number only when absolutely necessary. Before giving it out, ask how it will be used, shared and protected. It is the key personal information cyber criminals seek to steal your identity and credit. Stay on top of your credit reporting activity. You can get a free copy once a year by calling 877-322-8228 or through annualcreditreport.com.

Credit card and banking fraud are the least of your worries. If your driver’s license and social security information are stolen and crimes are committed in your name, you will incur costly legal fees and billable hours. Review privacyrights.org for an in-depth look at data breaches.

And say your mailbox is the traditional unlocked kind that anyone can open from your doorstep. Your mail profiles you and gives thieves your personal and financial information. Remove mail from your own mailbox promptly and of course, put a hold on your mail if you will be away or use a PO box. And take time to shred documents with your personal information before trashing them.

From mailboxes in the Camden Community, to small business with which we do business, to government agencies concerned with cyberterrorism, protecting identifying information is everyone’s responsibility.