Identity theft is the fastest growing crime in the U.S. The U.S. Secret Service has estimated that consumers nationwide lose $745 million to identity theft each year. According to the Identity Theft Resource Center, the average victim spends 607 hours and averages $1,000 just to clear their credit records.
Identity thieves employ a variety of methods to gain access to your personal information. They may get information from businesses or other institutions by stealing it; by bribing an employee who has access to records; hacking into records; or conning information out of employees. Once identity thieves have your personal information, they may use it to commit a fraud or theft in your name.
How can you tell if you have become a victim of identity theft? Some signs include unexplained charges or withdrawals from your financial accounts; bills or other mail stop arriving (the thief may have submitted a change of address); a credit application is denied for no apparent reason, or debt collectors begin calling about merchandise or services you didn’t buy.
Your computer can be a goldmine of personal information to an identity thief. To protect yourself and your computer against identity theft consider:
Updating virus protection software frequently. Consider setting your virus protection software to update automatically. The Windows XP operating system also can be set to check for patches automatically and download them to your computer.
Not opening files sent to you by strangers, clicking on hyperlinks, or downloading programs from people or companies you don’t know.
Using a firewall program, especially if you use a high speed Internet connection like cable or DSL that leaves your computer connected to the Internet 24 hours a day.
Providing your personal or financial information through an organization’s secured website only. While not fool proof, a lock icon on the browser’s status bar or a URL for a website that begins "https:" (the "s" stands for secure), may provide additional security.
Not storing your financial information on your laptop, unless absolutely necessary.
Deleting all the personal information stored on a computer before disposing of it. A wipe" utility program to overwrite the entire hard drive is recommended.
Checking with an anti-fraud education organization such as CardCops (www.cardcops.com). Card Cops runs a web site designed to help consumers determine whether their credit card numbers may have been stolen. They monitor Internet "chat rooms" where identity thieves illicitly trade and sell stolen credit card numbers. CardCops turns the information over to law enforcement authorities, but also allows consumers to access their database to see whether individual card numbers may have been stolen. In the first two months of operation, the site identified more than 100,000 stolen credit cards.
As with any crime, you can not completely control whether you will become a victim, but you can take steps to minimize your risk by remaining diligent and by minimizing outside access to your personal information.