How To Protect Against Identity Theft

A Den of Identity Thieves

Review all your banking and credit card statements to make sure there aren't any unusual charges.
Review all your banking and credit card statements to make sure there aren't any unusual charges.
© iStockphoto/deepblue4you

The Internet is a great place for identity thieves. It offers them avenues of obtaining personal information never thought possible in the days before the Web. Scammers and hackers are always developing new methods of getting the info they need. But the first step in avoiding their traps is simple: Don't give your information away.

Whether you're posting on a message board or blogging on your personal Web site, don't publish your address, phone number or, most importantly, your Social Security number. That might seem obvious, but it doesn't stop there. Identity thieves can make use of all kinds of personal info, such as your mother's maiden name, where you went to school or the name of your pet.

Beware of phishing. Phishing is a scam in which you receive a fake e-mail that appears to come from your bank, a merchant or an auction Web site. For instance, the message will inform you that your bank's Web site has been upgraded, and they need you to update your information, with a link directing to a Web form. There you can fill in your name, account numbers and other vital data. The info is collected by the scam artists and used or sold. Phishing scam e-mails can look so authentic that even savvy Internet users can be fooled. Watch for misspelled words and poor grammar, and for blocks of text that are actually images, which can be used to disguise links.

Use a credit card when you go shopping online. A debit card offers no protection if your account number is stolen and used. Credit card companies limit your liability on fraudulent purchases, and you can dispute false charges. Also, make sure any Web site you use for purchases is secure -- most Web browsers have an icon that lets you know whether or not a site uses encryption to keep your information safe. Never make purchases or check online accounts on a public computer or public wireless network. And stick to shopping on reputable sites.

While phishing is a somewhat passive scam (in that the scammers are trying to fool you into giving them your personal info), there are more aggressive attacks. Many computer viruses, worms and trojans are designed to install malicious software onto your computer. Some of these include key loggers that can record your bank password as you type it. Keep your anti-virus software up to date, and use a Web browser that blocks code, such as JavaScript, from being executed on Web sites. If you have a wireless home network, use a secure encryption method, such as WPA2. Perhaps most importantly, use strong passwords on sensitive accounts.

Next, we'll look at some other identity theft scams to watch out for.