By Steve Weisman, Author of Identity Theft Alert
A recent national survey placed identity theft as Americans’ second biggest fear and with good reason. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, identity theft cost Americans 10 billion dollars more than all other property crimes combined.
Identity theft can result in your bank accounts being looted; being hounded by a debt collector for a debt that you did not incur; becoming unable to access your own credit cards or bank accounts; being arrested for crimes committed by people using your name or even receiving improper medical care because your medical records have been corrupted by an identity thief who got access to your medical insurance. It can also ruin your credit rating which can, in turn, affect your ability to rent an apartment, get a loan, a job or insurance.
But it is not as bad as you think. It is far worse. College students are identity theft’s most common victims. You are five times more likely to become a victim of identity theft than the general public.
Identity is a crime that it is high tech, low tech and no tech. You are vulnerable in your dorm room. You are vulnerable in your mail and personal papers. You are vulnerable on social media and you are vulnerable on your computers, smartphones and tablets.
Dorm rooms are often open spaces left available to many people. A blank check can lead to a series of counterfeit checks. A stolen credit card statement will not only provide the identity thief with your credit card number, but enable the thief to fill in a change of address notation on the statement and send it back to the credit card company so it could be months before you realize your credit has been accessed.
Your trash is an identity thief’s treasure. Discarding documents containing personal information is an invitation to a dumpster diving identity thief to steal your identity.
Trust me, you can’t trust anyone. Too often college students click on links in texts, emails or in social media postings that appear to come from their friends, but actually are from identity thieves posing as friends. Those links don’t take you to the promised photos, videos or other material, but instead download keystroke logging malware that will steal all of your personal information from your computer, smartphone or tablet and use that information to make you a victim of identity theft.
Downloading free music and video games from websites that may not be legitimate is another major source of keystroke logging malware.
Identity thieves have a knowledge of psychology that would have made Freud envious and they know much about pop culture and what celebrities interest you. They will create websites around celebrities, often promising nude photographs to lure you to these malware tainted websites. McAfee, the computer security company maintains an annual list of the most dangerous celebrities on the Internet. Searches for these people online will often take you to malware ladened websites. This year the list was topped by Jimmy Kimmel followed by Armin van Buuren, Ciara and Flo Rida.
So what can you do to protect yourself? Here is a list of some important precautions:
Don’t carry your Social Security card in your wallet or purse. Lock it up.
Lock up all your important papers with personal information.
Don’t download attachments or click on links unless you are absolutely sure that they are legitimate.
Install security software and anti-malware software on all of your electronic devices and keep them current.
Keep your computer, smartphone, tablet and all electronic devices locked when not in use.
Use strong passwords and different passwords for all of your devices.
Use dual authentication when possible. This would have prevented the hacking of the cloud that resulted in the recent stealing of the nude photos of celebrities.
Shred, shred, shred papers with personal information that you do not need to keep.
Have important mail sent to your home address. It is more secure.
Adjust the privacy setting on your social network sites to make it more difficult for people you don’t know to view your information or post material on your page.
There are no guarantees in life and there certainly is no guarantee that you will not become a victim of identity theft, but by taking some basic precautions, you can certainly narrow your chances of becoming a victim.
Steve Weisman is a lawyer, a professor at Bentley University and one of the country’s leading experts in scams and identity theft. He writes the blog scamicide.com, where he provides daily update information about the latest scams. His new book is Identity Theft Alert.