Preventing Identity Theft
Published: Tuesday, February 21, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, February 22, 2012 11:02
These days, it seems like computers can do just about anything. Unfortunately, the technology many of us take for granted is not always used for noble purposes.
As with any tool, computers and the internet can be misused. There are criminals today who would use this great source of information to discover things they have no right to know, and to turn that knowledge into their own financial gain, at your expense. A little understanding of their methods can go a long way toward protecting yourself. With that in mind, here you will find compiled a list of good practices for preventing identity theft.
1. Be wary of public computers. As mentioned in the Prospectus News column "Using public computers safely," which can be found at http://www.prospectusnews.com, public computers are never completely safe. If you must use them, you should keep an eye out for people watching over your shoulder.
While on the public computer, stay away from sites that handle any of your banking or other financial transactions. This includes not only your bank or investment firm, but also eBay, PayPal, Amazon and any other sites which you have allowed to store your information.
2. Never use your PIN. Whenever using a debit card for purchases at a grocery store, gas station or restaurant, always run the transaction as credit. The reason for this is that while your bank's ATM may be secure, oftentimes places like gas stations and grocery stores do not have the same level of security. Malicious persons can intercept the information as it leaves the store, obtaining your account number and PIN. This can result in disastrous consequences ranging from loss of funds to an inconvenient hold on your bank account during investigation.
The only time you should ever use your PIN is at an ATM. And at the ATM, you should be alert for people trying to watch what you enter.
3. Use different passwords. Today, with so many social media, email and other sites requiring separate accounts, managing a large list of user names and passwords can be annoying, if not altogether impossible. Having different passwords is worth the hassle, though. Just bear in mind the consequences which could be caused by the loss of one of them.
On a site such as Facebook or Google+, it may be just an irritation, but if that same password is the one tied to your online bank account or PayPal, the effects can be much worse.
At the very least, you should have a separate password for each site that stores financial information. While it's not good practice to have your email, Twitter and Reddit passwords match, it is crucial that your online banking, PayPal, eBay and Amazon accounts all have different passwords.
4. Don't let sites store your information. Sure it's annoying to have to pull out your credit card every time you order from Jimmy John's or pay the water bill, but it's much more annoying to discover that someone has accessed your information from their site. If you use PayPal, you need to let them store it, but does any other site really need to remember your credit card number? The best practice is to use PayPal wherever possible and to enter in your credit card manually at any other site.
5. Only purchase from trusted sites. Do some homework. It's not difficult to set up a website that claims to offer great deals on your favorite stuff. Keep that in mind when you stumble across a site you've never heard of offering an irresistible bargain on something you absolutely have to have right now.
Using only known sites such as eBay, Amazon or the online page of a known retail establishment is your best bet. If the best bargain is on a different site, do an online search for reviews of the place first. Has anyone else ordered from them? Did they receive the merchandise? Was it what they ordered? How was the support or return policy?
6. Beware of phishing attacks. Phishing is an identity theft method whereby a site will pose as a site to which you belong. If you follow a link in an email that falsely claims to be from eBay or your bank, it may take you somewhere else.
This other site might look exactly like what you expect it to, but its sole purpose is to find out your user name, password or other information. It's best to type the address of the site you wish to visit directly into the navigation toolbar whenever possible.
7. Don't even open spam. Some email carriers send a receipt verification to email senders. This can confirm that your email address is a real one to those that send out spam email. Spam can contain phishing links or even malicious software that can compromise the security of your home or office computer and make vulnerable all of the information on it. Marking messages from unfamiliar addresses as spam before deleting them is a good habit to get into.
8. Shred your sensitive documents. The internet is not the only method for identity theft. Criminals will not hesitate to dig through your trash to find out your banking account number, credit card number or other information. Shred all documents containing anything you don't want anyone else to know.
It's also not a bad idea to rip your address off of junk mail before throwing it away. Knowing just your name and address is enough of a starting point for some of these scams.