Vol.1, No.5

How to protect against identity theft when shopping online

You like to shop online, because of the convenience, but you are concerned about someone stealing your identity.

Woman worried about identity theft
Photo Credit: Ed Hidden
You like to shop online, because of the convenience, but you are concerned about someone stealing your name and identity and running up numerous charges on your credit card. You also wonder if someone might find your name and Social Security number and open up new credit card accounts and charge thousands of dollars to your name.

Identity theft is when someone uses your personal information to commit fraud or a crime, and it is becoming increasingly commonplace. Often the crime occurs because people give out personal information like their Social Security numbers, credit card information, birthdates, employment information, driver's license number, or other information.

Those who have been the victims of identity theft often spend months trying to repair the damage. They often fail to get a job they have applied for, as a result, fail to get a desired loan, or are even arrested for something someone else has done.

The criminals who steal a person's identity might not only use your credit card or open another credit card account in your name, but they might also: open cell phone or utility accounts; pass bad checks or open a new bank account in your name; get loans in your name; or even work in your name.

Because purchases over the Internet have become commonplace, thieves have turned more and more to using technology for identity theft. One of the best ways to protect yourself is to make certain you have a secure web browser.

One way to do this is to run a browser check. If you do a search of Internet browser checks you can find sites that will detect if you have a security problem. A site might also tell you how to fix a problem. For example, in writing this story, I used one such site to find out if I had a problem that might make it easier for a hacker to detect the cookies I use on my computer when searching the Internet. I found that I do not have a security problem in that regard. If I had, the site would have told me the problem and how to fix it. If someone is able to determine the cookies you use while online, they can learn the kinds of sites you visit and the activities you are involved with on those sites.

Also make certain your are shopping on a secure website. Be sure that any personal information you give is encrypted. Don't even think about buying from a website that does not encrypt any personal information you have. If the website does not, see if the company has a phone number that enables you to call and place an order. Also, you could see if the company has an e-mail address that will enable you to make a purchase.

If you are using a website that requires you to create a password or PIN (Personal Identification Number), don't use common names or dates. Anyone can guess them. I learned in college that many dishonest people can figure someone's password out in minutes, if they know the person using it. That is because most people will use something for a password like a spouse's name, child's name, pet's name, or the name of a favorite sport team. Create your own password using numbers and letters, even if you have to write the information down to remember it. Keep the information in a place where only you will know of.

Beware of anything suspicious and don't give out any personal information online, over the phone, or through the mail, unless you initiate the contact, know the other person, or a website does provide secure encryption. Crooks will pose as Internet providers, but most Internet providers tell their patrons they never ask for personal information online or by phone. Thieves may also pose as bank representatives, government agents, former boyfriends or girlfriends, a credit card company representative, or anyone they think you would give information to.

You should always put your personal records, such as birth certificate, Social Security information, passport and other items in a secure area. Even at home it might be good to lock them away. If someone breaks in, don't make it easy for that person to get personal information and use it against you online.

If you are in an office at work be certain to not have any personal information in a place where someone might access. Even if you think you can trust the people you work with, you don't know what someone might do with such information.

Have your name and address removed from your phone book. Thieves can use that information if they break into your home to your detriment, whether online, or in other ways.

If you have extra credit cards you don't need or use, cancel them.

Never give out your Social Security information unless absolutely necessary. Make certain you know the person you are giving the information to in person or on the phone. Only give out such information to a website that encrypts the information.

Deposit such personal information in outgoing mail in post office boxes, not your personal mailboxes. Thieves will often steal such personal information from your personal box.

While you should do everything in your power to avoid identity theft, there are things you should do immediately if you have any suspicion that you have been a victim of such a crime.

Contact the credit bureau that has your accounts to inform the fraud department and ask them to issue a credit alert on your accounts. Your creditors will then know to contact you before taking any action regarding your account. Close any accounts you believe may be affected. File a police report and keep a copy of the report for your records.

If you have been a victim of fraud, you can also contact the three major credit bureaus: www.equifax.com; www.eperian.com; and www.transunion.com.

There are things you can do to detect whether you have been a victim of identity theft, or whether or not there might have been some kind of a problem. Notice whether your bank statements arrive in time. Check them carefully. Your bank statement should arrive at about the same time every month. Is there a month you don't receive your statement? Someone may have changed your billing address to prevent you from noticing unauthorized activity regarding your account. Check your statement. Did you make all the purchases it records? You can also request a copy of your credit report once a year.

Taking such precautions can save you years of hassle and save a lot of money, if they prevent identity theft. They might take a little time, but they might just prove to be well worth it.