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ID Theft: Before and After

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Today’s media is filled with news of a data loss epidemic. It seems every company, financial institution, and government agency has suddenly become irresponsible about protecting our private information. Exposure of private information opens up the undeniable possibility of identity theft for all of us. What are you doing to protect yourself from this plague?

Identity theft occurs when your personal information is obtained and used to commit fraud. Personal information that can be exploited for this purpose includes your name and address, credit card and bank account information, and Social Security number (SSN). Exposure of this critical private information is a threat for thousands, even millions of people.

What Forms of Identity Theft Exist Today?

Your personal information can be obtained in many different ways. Schemes for stealing your information have evolved to take advantage of technology, but old-fashioned methods are still very effective as well.

  • Theft: Thieves will steal wallets, purses, personnel records, and various forms of mail (bills, pre-approved credit cards, bank statements, etc.).
  • Dumpster Diving: Very similar to theft, dumpster diving consists of going through trash looking for bills and statements and other papers with your personal information on it.
  • Phishing: Phishing generally takes place via email in the form of spam, or on websites designed to collect personal information. Phishing emails look as though they've been sent from legitimate financial institutions such as banks. There has been a huge growth in phishing emails seeming to originate from eBay and PayPal. Generally the messages will play on the fears that your account has been tampered with in some manner; they ask you to "verify" your account, password, and personal information. Phishing websites appear to belong to legitimate services and organizations, but they're designed specifically to gather your information.
  • Skimming: This is more of a high-tech form of theft in which credit/debit card numbers are obtained by using a special storage device when processing your card. Most recently this has been accomplished at ATMs where a card reader has been fitted over the actual ATM reader slot. Cards may be "confiscated" by the machine, and cash may be snagged at the cash dispenser slot.
  • Pretexting/Impersonation: Most people are aware of the risk of being impersonated by someone. Pretexting is the use of false pretenses to obtain your personal information from financial institutions, telephone companies, and other sources. Pretexting is generally performed over the phone.
  • Databases: Databases themselves are not a threat, but they are certainly a juicy target for thieves. You can consider large databases the proverbial "pot of gold" for an identity thief. This is probably the greatest overall threat because of the large volume of identities that can be compromised.

How can you protect yourself from identity theft? There are as many methods of protecting your identity as there are methods of obtaining it. In general, for each threat there is an appropriate mitigating procedure or countermeasure.

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