Identity Theft. Myths, Reality and Safety
by Bob Hubbard
It happens every day. Thousands of people find their bank accounts drained, their credit ruined or worse. The media and others have created a fear, or almost panic situation in people today. "The Internet's Fastest Growing Crime" they say, but is it really? Here I will attempt to expose some of the most common myths concerning this issue.
According to the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Better Business Bureau (BBB) identity theft is actually on the decline while costs rise. This conclusion is based on surveys performed by the FTC and BBB in 2003 and 2004.
- 2003 - 10.1 million U.S. victims - $51.4 billion.
- 2004 - 9.6 million U.S. victims - $52.6 billion.
- 2005 - 9.3 million U.S. victims - $54.4 billion.
- 2006 - 8.9 million U.S. victims - $56.6 billion.
So what is identity theft?
Identity theft falls into four categories:
- Financial Identity Theft - using another's name and SSN to obtain goods and services.
- Criminal Identity Theft - posing as another when apprehended for a crime.
- Identity Cloning - using another's information to assume his or her identity in daily life.
- Business/Commercial Identity Theft - using another's business name to obtain credit.
So how do the criminals obtain your information?
Usually through the victims own negligence.
Wait a minute, I hear you saying. Doesn't it come from all these security breaches and lost laptops I keep hearing about?
Very little of that information ends up in criminal hands. Losses through online phishing attempts are also minimal as most people are aware of them and take proper precautions.
The majority of identity theft comes from lost wallets, checkbooks and credit cards, followed by friends or relatives with access to your personal information, or corrupt coworkers. Computer related thefts of information account for less than 10% of the total.
Relatives account for one third of all identity thefts!
But, what about email and message boards and online banking?
Perfectly safe, if you use some common sense.
Myth - Online Banking is not safe.
Truth - Untrue. Online banking is safer, as there are less papers to misplace. Be certain that you are on an encrypted connection (the little lock symbol). By banking online, you can see your transactions within days not weeks, allowing you to detect problems quicker.
Myth - Online ordering is riskier than shopping in person.
Truth - Untrue. If the site is using a reliable real-time processor, your transaction is safer than shopping live. No human sees your personal data, there are no carbons to sign, and no paperwork to lose. Be certain that the site uses a secure processor. When you shop in person, you create a paper trail and often hand your card to an unknown person. When dining out, what really happens to your card after you hand it to your server and they vanish for 5-15 minutes with it?
Myth - Sending a check is safer.
Truth - Untrue. When you mail a check, you have no idea who will see it, or what information might be stolen. Your check contains your name, address and banking information. Paying online with a card through a properly secured payment site is safer.
Myth - If I tell you who I am, you can steal my identity.
Truth - Untrue. Use an internet search engine like Google and look up your name. You might be surprised to see how many people share it. Locally, there are 5 others with my name. Your name alone, is not enough to steal your identity. A thief will need other information such as bank accounts, tax id, or other similarly confidential information. A name alone is very rarely enough. One needs other personal information to match up with it for a name to be of any use to the thief.
Myth - If I use a PO Box I'm safe right?
Truth - Untrue. Your mail can be intercepted at any point. Be certain that you have your box setup so that only authorized individuals can ask for your mail at the desk. Be aware of who has access to your keys, and if you notice a slowdown in mail, make sure no one has placed an unauthorized forwarding order on your box, or home.
So, how can I really be safe?
The first step, is to make sure that your computer is secure. Install a good firewall and anti virus program, and regularly sweep it for spy-ware.
Secondly, don't leave important information like banking information, passwords, pin numbers, or tax information where just anyone can find it.
shred all important documents when you throw them away. This includes utility bills, tax documents and anything with your social security number.
Regularly check your credit reports. You can get a free credit report from each of the 3 main agencies by going to https://www.annualcreditreport.com.
Please note the https rather than the usual http. This signifies a secure web site.
Be wary of giving out account numbers or your social security (tax id) over the phone or by email.
When you buy new computers, be certain to wipe the old one clean. Format the hard drive several times over at least, or better yet, use a utility to overwrite the old drive with gibberish.
Review your accounts regularly and report missing statements and other discrepancies promptly.
The reality is that one is at greater risk of theft from their own carelessness (trusting family, or discarding sensitive documents improperly) than shopping online from a reliable site or participating in a forum. Use some common sense, and you'll be fine.
Bob Hubbard is an administrator of the popular martial arts sites MartialTalk.com and KenpoTalk.com. He is president of SilverStar WebDesigns inc., a web site design and hosting company specializing in affordable solutions for martial artists as well as a professional photographer. More of Bob's articles can be found at rustaz.net.
Copyright ©2007 Bob Hubbard - Copies of this article are free to distribute, provided all text is retained intact.