Preventing identity theft on the Web

Posted Aug. 31, 2008, at 9:32 p.m.

The task of dealing with identity theft can be a daunting one. This is especially true when the thieves work through the invisible web surrounding many aspects of our lives, the Internet.

Fortunately there are many sources of help to avoid identity theft and to deal with related problems if it happens to you. A great first stop for information to arm yourself against cyberthieves is the Federal Trade Commission’s Web site, www.ftc.gov. On the home page find “Identity Theft” and “Internet Fraud and Safety” for a complete rundown of topics.

In brief, here are some key points:

Safeguard your computer with up-to-date protection from viruses, worms, Trojan horses and other malicious programs hackers use to pollute the Internet. That means at least weekly updates of your anti-virus software. Many programs are designed to update automatically; if yours doesn’t, make sure to update manually on a regular basis.

Thieves steal identities in many ways, including pretexting — posing as financial or other institutions so you’ll give them your personally identifiable information for a variety of phony reasons. Another way is phishing, where the thief pretends to be a financial institution or company and sends spam or pop-up messages to get you to reveal your personal information.

Be extra careful when a pop-up appears; if you click inside the main message, you can be diverted to a site that appears to be legitimate. Instead, it’s a fake site that looks real but was designed by scam artists to trick you into disclosing your personal information.

Another variation on the theme is called “vishing.” You might receive an e-mail from PayPal or a bank, saying your account has been compromised and asking you to call. Or you might receive a phone call from a company with which you don’t do business, threatening to start collection procedures.

It can be unsettling, but beware of this criminal attempt to get your information. You might be asked to give account numbers, your Social Security number or other sensitive data. Or your computer may be infected with malicious spyware. Vishing uses Voice over Internet Protocol in a way that allows the crooks to display false names and numbers on caller ID.

You might be called and urged to join an online research network. If you install the “special software” required, you may find — too late — that it is really spyware that collects sensitive information from your computer.

Protect your data by using passwords whenever possible: on your charge card, bank, phone and Internet accounts. Make it tough for thieves to figure out your passwords — avoid easily known dates of birth, mother’s maiden name, and the last four digits of your Social Security number. Good passwords have a mix of lower case and capital letters, plus numbers and symbols.

Before revealing personally identifiable information, find out how it will be used and whether it will be shared. Don’t give out such information over the Internet, by phone or mail unless you initiated the business transaction and you know with whom you’re dealing. If a communication looks suspicious, the safest thing is simply to ignore it.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration, now in its 30th year, of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. Interested and motivated prospective volunteers are always needed and welcomed to apply to help with our mission. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for more information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, or e-mail contacexdir@live.com.

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