|IDENTITY THEFT: Protect Yourself!
| Cybercriminals are getting smarter. You can too.
By Ed Shanahan
Not long after I began my reporting for this article, I was in Washington, D.C., taking a cab from the airport, when my wife called.
"There‘s a message from Visa on the machine," she said. "There‘s something going on with the card."
Weird, I thought, pulling out my wallet. The card was right there. I called the number she gave me, and hit the voice-mail prompts ("Please enter the nine-digit telephone number at which you were contacted") and finally reached a live customer-service representative. "Someone in the U.K. is trying to buy a money order for $3,400 using your card number," the woman said.
"Definitely not me," I said.
"We‘ll block that, cancel the card, and issue a new one," she said.
"Okay. Thanks for calling."
As we went through the back-and-forth about a replacement card, I explained how almost the only time I used the one I‘d just canceled was to buy gas -- and only at a couple of stations. If it never left my possession, how could someone be trying to use it 3,000 miles away? "I couldn‘t say for sure," she said. "It could happen a lot of ways."
We‘re All Vulnerable
It‘s not news that identity theft -- described by the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act as "the use or attempted use of an account or identifying information without the owner‘s permission" -- is rampant in the United States. Federal and state authorities alike have labeled it the country‘s fastest-growing white-collar crime since the late 1990s. And why not? We live in an age where everything from tax records to Social Security numbers to credit card data resides in databases that can be hacked, phished or pharmed by anyone with sinister motives and enough know-how.
The number of people victimized annually was last estimated at about 10 million by the Federal Trade Commission. In April, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that at least one member of 3 percent of all U.S. households were identity-theft victims in the last half of 2004. Chances are you or someone you know has been hit. Yes, consumers have gotten savvier -- cyber streetwise, if you will. We shred financial documents and unsolicited, pre-approved credit card offers; check credit reports regularly; keep Social Security numbers as private as possible; delete e-mail from unknown senders as soon as it arrives; and frequently update antivirus, firewall and spam-blocking software. But for every scam we foil, the crooks are hard at work thinking up novel ways to rip us off.
Beat the Thieves
- Install security software and stay current with the latest patches.
- Always be suspicious of unsolicited e-mail.
- Monitor the volume and origin of pop-up ads. A change may signal something sinister.
- Visit the FBI‘s new Web site, lookstoogoodtobetrue.gov, for tips.
- Use debit cards like credit cards, i.e., with a signature, not a PIN code.
- If you live in one of the 20 states where it‘s possible, place a freeze on credit reports. This stops any credit activity in your name unless you specifically initiate it.
- Keep an eye out for "skimmers" lurking in places where you use cards.
- Enable encryption on wireless routers immediately upon setting up a home network.
- Shop only on secure Web sites (look for the padlock or "https" in the address bar); use credit, not debit, cards; don‘t store your financial info in an "account" on the Web site.
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