When I lost my wallet last week, I wasn’t worried about the keys that hang off it or my SmartTrip card. Instead, alternative visions of my life flooded my mind: my identity would be assumed by some creepy thief, my bank would cease to recognize me—and so would the government, leaving me haggard and alone into my old age with no Social Security to count on for a pension. Is this a fearful exaggeration? Maybe.
First of all, your identity may not even be in your hands. On June 8, the University of Virginia released a statement saying that it “discovered a security breach in one of its computer applications” that hackers may have tapped into. Among the sensitive data at risk, are names, Social Security numbers, and dates of birth. Past and present UVA faculty members from as far back as 1990 are at risk. This is not the first time institutions have messed things up. Last year, more than 200,000 employees at Hewlett-Packard found that they were at risk when a laptop containing their data was stolen from a Fidelity Investments office. A Consumer Affairs article cites a slew of careless employers: Ford Motor Company, Ameriprise, Providence Healthcare Hospital system, Deloitte & Touche, and Verizon. All I can say is that the slippery hands of corporate America are carrying around your information like lunch bags, and when they lose the goods, they offer their potential victims free credit monitoring. Take advantage of it. A past NCPC blog entry highlights the importance of paying close attention to your finances.
Among other advice that Chevy Chase Bank provides is to look for the closed padlock icon that is usually on the bottom right-hand corner of your screen. This is a sign that the website is secure and encrypted. Among other advice: Always sign off after visiting secure websites. Review your monthly statements. Know that there’s a risk when you enter your personal information into public (library) computers.
There is identity theft, and then there are phishers who have virtually sucked the fun out of localized internet trade centers. Craigslist, a virtual village center created for cities all over the world (but originally based in San Francisco) is an easy target for international scammers, Nigerian ones especially. To help its users battle these phishers, Craigslist urges users to deal with people you can meet. Craigslist also adds in capitalized lettering, “AVOID DEALS INVOLVING SHIPPING OR ESCROW SERVICES…ONLY A SCAMMER WILL "GUARANTEE" YOUR TRANSACTION.”
The chilling lesson from all this is that you need to stop Internet fraud and identity theft before it happens to you. Think twice about the guy in China who wants to pay twice your asking price for a used bike. Don’t blindly buy from any Froogle vendor; make sure it’s secure and well-known. If you think you’re dealing with an identity thief, let the Federal Trade Commission know. Check out NCPC’s guide to identity theft for more resources. Finally, consider what Pat Regnier said in Money magazine: “The data industry has lobbied to defeat state laws that allow you to slap a freeze on your report for a small fee. With a freeze, no potential lender can order your credit information unless you first contact the agencies and tell them to unlock your report. The idea is to make it nearly impossible for someone else to borrow money in your name.” In other words, there’s plenty of hype around identity theft, but the best thing you can do is stay alert and prepared. And don’t lose your wallet!