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May I borrow your face please?

Identity theft (courtesy illustration photo)

Identity theft (courtesy illustration photo)

by 1st Lt. Brian Belongia

21st Communications Squadron

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — The Federal Trade Commission reports 1.3 million people have fallen victim to identity thieves lurking at the web’s back door in 2009 alone. The 2006 Identity Theft Survey estimates consumers lost more than $1.1 billion in 2006. The aftermath is chilling. Repairing credit can take months, even years. The ramifications of identity theft can tax our time and our pocketbooks. In extreme cases, victims have been arrested for crimes they didn’t commit or litigated against for charges they never made. Taking 15 common sense measures will protect you and your family from the proverbial identity theft storm that plagues the infosphere in both the physical and cyberspace.

Check Your Credit Score Regularly: Doing this will make you aware of any unusual banking or credit activities reported in your name. To order a free annual credit report, visit www.annualcreditreport.com or call 877-322-8228. The federal Fair Credit Reporting Act mandates each reporting agency provide a free annual report.

Don’t send personal information in e-mail or instant messages. Readily available tools on the network allow hackers unfettered access to data networks. Mobile hackers are particularly keen at doing this at your local coffee shop or roaming through your neighborhood looking for unprotected or weak Wi-Fi networks.

Limit posts of personal information on the Web and restrict who can access it. Facebook and MySpace are mainstays for connecting with friends. Yet posting identifying data such as your birthday or full name is an invitation for theft. Locking out “friends of friends” won’t stop even the novice hacker, so be aware, once it’s out there…it’s out there for good. Your good friends will remember your birthday anyway right?

Determine the legitimacy of a sender. Unless you know, trust and can validate the sender, curb the urge to open files, download programs or click links in e-mails or messaging. Phishing scams often rely on your knee-jerk reactions to the proverbial “carrot” in messages and files. Remember, manipulating human behavior is a phisher’s modus operandi.

Dedicate one credit card for online purchases. Monitor statements for any suspicious activity.

Regularly update your web browser. Like most software, web browsers need to be kept up-to-date to protect against security vulnerabilities. Most Internet browsers are equipped with encryption capabilities that secure your data as it travels the Internet. Check the online help feature or get more information about security features on your favorite browser’s website.

Avoid storing sensitive information on your computer. Place important documents with birthdates, Social Security numbers, and bank accounts on an offline drive. “Keychains” and similar convenient features on new operating systems are exploits available for the next hacker.

“Wipe” your hard drive before disposing/giving away old computers. Deleting files or formatting isn’t enough. Deleting files normally changes just the areas on the directory on how to get to the files. In a nutshell, an electronic footprint normally still resides on the disc. To alleviate, there are many tools available that electronically “shred” your files. Be sure to invest in one, and be leery of downloading the “free” wipe tools (often spyware or malware itself). If you’re not a “techy,” there are services at your local electronics stores that will also perform this service for a small fee (well worth the costly legal fees of recovering your credit or identity).

Use firewall, anti-virus and anti-spyware security software. Consider these components as the “seat belt” when driving a computer. If you don’t wear it, expect a crash. As with any software, do your research on the “free” versions before installing. Ensure they originate from reputable sites. Some anti-virus companies evaluate web sites. These types of third party evaluator tools will check a website you enter for viruses, affiliations and reported annoyances. Think of it as the Better Business Bureau for websites.

Use stronger passwords. These include a combination of upper and lower case letters, numbers and symbols. In addition, don’t allow a login screen to save your username or password, and always remember to log off when you leave a secured site. This simple habit will decrease your chances of uninvited users accessing your accounts.

Invest in a paper shredder. Shred all financial documents and credit applications to keep your personal information safe from dumpster divers.

Memorize important data: Memorize your passwords, Social Security number and other account numbers. If you write them down they can be seen or stolen.

Limit the number of credit cards or identification cards you carry. Your risk increases if one slips out of your wallet.

When ordering new checks, request delivery to the bank. Checks are easily stolen if they are sent to your home mailbox.

Plan before leaving your mailbox unattended: Take your mail from your mailbox as soon as possible. Are you missing that important credit card statement? If you are going to be away, arrange with a neighbor to pick up your mail or set up a “delivery hold” with the U.S. Postal Service.

(Sources: Federal Trade Commission, U.S. Department of Education, University of Texas – Austin identity theft survey.)

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