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Avoiding Identity Theft

Identity Theft Risks - Both Offline and Online

Even if you never use a computer, identity theft is still a possibility. By taking your wallet, listening in on a phone call, dumpster diving, or by picking up a restaurant receipt with your account number on it, malicious individuals may be able to access personal information (such as credit card numbers, phone numbers, account numbers, and addresses). A thief could be able to pose as you to make purchases, open new accounts, or apply for loans if they have access to enough information.

The internet has made it simpler for criminals to steal financial and personal information. The majority of businesses and other organizations keep client information in databases; if a thief has access to that database, they can get information about a lot of people at once rather than concentrating on one person at a time. Additionally, the internet has made it simpler for criminals to sell or exchange information, making it more challenging for law enforcement to locate and apprehend offenders.

How Are Victims of Online Identity Theft Chosen?

Since identity theft is typically an act of opportunity, you could become a victim just because your information is accessible. Customers of particular businesses may be targeted by thieves for a variety of reasons, such as the ease with which a corporate database may be accessed, the allure of the customers' demographics, or the existence of a market for a particular type of information. You can experience identity theft if a database containing your data is stolen.

Are There Ways to Avoid Becoming a victim?

Sorry to break the news... but there is no way to guarantee that you won't become a victim of online identity theft. However, there are ways to minimize your risk:

  • Do business with reputable companies – Before providing any personal or financial information, make sure that you are interacting with a reputable, established company. Some attackers may try to trick you by creating malicious websites that appear to be legitimate, so you should verify the legitimacy before supplying any information. (See Avoiding Social Engineering and Phishing Attacks and Understanding Web Site Certificates for more information.)
  • Take advantage of security features – Passwords and other security features add layers of protection if used appropriately. (See Choosing and Protecting Passwords and Supplementing Passwords for more information.)
  • Check privacy policies – Take precautions when providing information, and make sure to check published privacy policies to see how a company will use or distribute your information. (See Protecting Your Privacy and How Anonymous Are You? for more information.) Many companies allow customers to request that their information not be shared with other companies; you should be able to locate the details in your account literature or by contacting the company directly.
  • Be careful what information you publicize – Attackers may be able to piece together information from a variety of sources. Avoid posting personal data in public forums. (See Guidelines for Publishing Information Online for more information.)
  • Use and maintain anti-virus software and a firewall – Protect yourself against viruses and Trojan horses that may steal or modify the data on your own computer and leave you vulnerable by using anti-virus software and a firewall. (See Understanding Anti-Virus Software and Understanding Firewalls for more information.) Make sure to keep your virus definitions up to date.
  • Be aware of your account activity – Pay attention to your statements, and check your credit report yearly. You are entitled to a free copy of your credit report from each of the main credit reporting companies once every twelve months. (See for more information.)

How Do You Know if Your Identity Has Been Stolen?

When businesses learn that someone has accessed a customer database, they have varying policies for alerting the affected clients. You should be mindful of modifications to your typical account activity, though. Here are some examples of alterations that can show someone has accessed your information.

  • unusual or unexplainable charges on your bills
  • phone calls or bills for accounts, products, or services that you do not have
  • failure to receive regular bills or mail
  • new, strange accounts appearing on your credit report
  • unexpected denial of your credit card

What Can You Do if You Suspect or Know That Your Identity Has Been Stolen?

Identity theft recovery can be a protracted, demanding, and potentially expensive procedure. The policies of many credit card issuers aim to reduce the amount of money you are responsible for, but the effects can go beyond your current accounts. Immediately take action to reduce the degree of the damage:

  • Start by visiting – This is a trusted, one-stop resource to help you report and recover from identity theft. Information provided here includes checklists, sample letters, and links to other resources.
  • Possible next steps in the process – You may need to contact credit reporting agencies or companies where you have accounts, file police or other official reports, and consider other information that may have been compromised.

Other sites that offer information and guidance for recovering from identity theft are:

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