Every year, identity theft claims 15 million victims in the U.S. alone. The financial losses from identity theft – the nation’s fastest-growing crime – are estimated to be upwards of $50 billion. While these are certainly sobering statistics, you can make sure you don’t add to them by learning how to recognize identity theft and protect yourself against it.
What is identity theft?
In order to safeguard yourself against identity theft, you first must fully understand what it is. Identity theft occurs when a criminal obtains enough personal information (driver’s license, social security number, credit card number, etc.) to impersonate someone else. While the stolen information can be used for a number of fraudulent purposes, financial gain – purchasing merchandise, stealing money, establishing loans, etc. – is the most common.
How is personal information stolen?
The Internet has made it much easier for criminals to commit identity theft. Here are some of the methods used by cybercriminals to commit identity theft:
- Phishing – Phishing is the act of attempting to trick someone into divulging personal information by falsely claiming to be a trusted business or enterprise through an electronic message.
- Skimming – Skimming occurs when a thief uses an electronic device, known as a skimmer, to pilfer personal information from your credit card, driver’s license or even your passport. Your card is swiped through the skimmer and the private data contained in the magnetic strip is then stored on the device or uploaded to an attached computer.
- Spyware – Spyware is used to gather all kinds of personal information, typically without you knowing that anything is happening. Spyware is usually downloaded unknowingly along with free software such as games, screensavers, videos, music, etc. It can also be distributed as an attachment in an email message or disguised as a legitimate software.
Believe it or not, a great deal of identity theft still occurs through old-fashioned stealing. Some criminals will steal wallets, purses, mail or even rummage through your trash in search of any sensitive documents they can get their hands on.
How can I protect myself?
First of all, you need to recognize all of the sources of information that identity thieves could use against you. Listed below are some of the most common:
- Public records (tax documents, court proceedings, etc.)
- Social media sites
- Credit card receipts
- Newspaper and magazine subscriptions
Remember, identity thieves are counting on your recklessness in safeguarding your most sensitive information. As long as you remain vigilant in securing your identity, you can avoid becoming a victim. Listed below are some tips and information that will help you do just that:
- Install up-to-date anti-virus and anti-spyware software on your computer(s).
- Turn on your computer’s firewall. If you connect to the Internet via a wireless network, make sure it’s encrypted to prevent outside access.
- Be wary of what sites you visit when using public Wi-Fi.
- Use unique, hard-to-guess passwords for all online accounts.
- Avoid opening emails from unknown senders.
- Routinely check your credit report
- Since identity theft isn’t strictly a digital crime, you need to take steps to protect your sensitive documents at home too. Consider investing in a professionally installed monitored alarm system if you don’t already have one installed. There are lots of sites out there to choose from like SelectHomeSecurity.com and many others, so do your homework if that’s the way you want to go.