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Identity Theft In Focus

Erin Earley is editor of Lavasoft News.

The stories are all too familiar: Money siphoned from a checking account. Unfamiliar charges racked up on a credit card bill. Discovering a loan has been taken out under false pretenses.

You may know someone forced to deal with one of these situations, or it may have even happened to you. Identity theft, when a thief uses your personal information for their personal gain, comes in all shapes and sizes, as criminals are able to steal information in a variety of ways -- online and offline, included -- and then use that information to commit a range of crimes. But there's one common factor: this crime is growing rapidly around the world, and its effects are hitting close to home for many. The numbers from current industry reports speak for themselves:

  • An estimated 9 million Americans are victims of identity theft each year.
  • The financial impact due to fraud amounted to $48 billion over the past year.
  • Approximately 1.8 million more adults in the U.S. became victims to identity fraud in 2008, compared to 2007.

Where can victims or those wanting to learn more turn for assistance? Organization like the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC), a U.S.-based non-profit group dedicated to providing assistance to identity theft victims, can lend a helping hand.

The ITRC -- while also devoted to educating consumers, businesses, and government agencies on identity theft awareness and mitigation -- offers a number of resources for identity theft victims, among them a no-cost call center. The victim assistance call center alone received an estimated 8,000 calls this past year.

"There has always been a need for victim services worldwide. The restoration process of cases that range beyond closing a credit card are enhanced with the guidance of a trained and skilled advisor," says ITRC founder Linda Foley.

Making the organization especially sensitive to the needs of victims in clearing their names and preventing further fraud is the fact that the ITRC is staffed with advisors who have been victims of identity theft themselves; its victim assistance services and educational material, including fact sheets and form letters, were created by its experienced staff.

"The information was obtained from our own walks through the trail of being a victim as well as the thousands and thousands of victims we have helped walk through their own battles," says Foley, who established the ITRC after her employer stole her identity.

"Additionally the ITRC research and writing team spends many hours verifying information, procedures and laws before even starting to write. We have staff whose primary focus is to stay on top of the latest information daily."

Still, even with such resources readily available by the ITRC, as well as a growing number of other educational campaigns like the U.S. Federal Trade Commission's identity theft awareness microsite, identity theft and fraud continue to proliferate, stressing the need for more to be done to protect consumers. According to the ITRC, to fight this type of crime, a stronger focus and more resources are needed in the form of services, education, and legislative support and guidelines.

"The most important point is that we must work in a collaborative effort: businesses, consumers, government, law enforcement and legislators," Foley says.

How to Prevent Identity Theft

Identity thieves use low-tech methods (stealing your wallet or even eavesdropping at key moments) as well as sophisticated Internet scams to rob people of their sensitive personal data. That's why it's critical to closely protect any documents, banking cards, or sensitive numbers that can be used by thieves for their personal gain -- whether you're at home, out and about in public, or surfing the Web. Below are basic guidelines we have compiled to help you reduce the risk of identity theft, whether you are online or offline.

  • Monitor your credit closely. Your credit report contains information about your credit accounts and bill paying history so you can be tipped off when someone is impersonating you. Watch for suspicious signs, like accounts you did not open. You can also consider identity protection services, which range from credit monitoring to database scanning, for extra security.
  • Keep records of your financial data and transactions. Review your statements regularly for any activity or charges you did not make.
  • Install security software (firewall, anti-virus, anti-spyware software) and keep it up-to-date as a safety measure against online intrusions.
  • Use an updated Web browser to make sure you're taking advantage of its current safety features.
  • Be wary of e-mail attachments and links in both e-mail and instant messages. Use caution even when the message appears to come from a safe sender, as identity information in messages can easily be spoofed.
  • Store sensitive data securely. Just as you keep sensitive paper documents under lock and key, secure sensitive online information. This can be done through file encryption software.
  • Shred documents (both paper and electronic) that contain personal or financial information before discarding them. This prevents dumpster diving and, in the online world, the ability for hackers to bypass information that has not been permanently deleted from your computer.
  • Protect your PII. Be cautious about giving out your personally identifiable information (PII) to anyone. Find out why the information is needed, and if it's absolutely necessary to give out. Be careful about the details you provide about yourself online, such as on social networking sites.
  • Stay alert to the latest scams. Awareness and caution are effective methods to counter fraud. Share security tips you learn with your friends and family.

But, what do you do if you think you may have already given your information to a scammer? Helpful sites like the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC) have you covered! Refer to theITRC's fact sheet, "I Gave My Info to a Scam Artist, Now What" to find out the immediate steps to take, tips for dealing with authorities, and additional resources. On the ITRC's website, you'll also find specific information to help guide you through a variety of identity theft issues.

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