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Saturday, February 14, 2009

How You Can Protect Your Online Security From Identity Theft

By Eric Jilson

In today's online world, you can do your banking, trade stocks, pay your bills, and even buy groceries on the Internet. This convenience can come with a price, though, with identity theft becoming one of the biggest concerns and fastest-growing crimes today. Being proactive with your data privacy is important and can keep you from getting zinged.

The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse says that 9.3 million Americans fell victim to identity theft in 2005 and while new laws and agencies have been created to fight it, it's still a concern and poses a serious threat to today's consumer.

Many companies now offer identity theft protection services. While paying a company to protect your identity for you can be very effective, there are things you can do on your own to greatly minimize your risk.

Here are some tips to help you keep your information secure:

Make purchases only on trusted sites.

Sites that you don't know, aren't familiar with, or seem in any way to be hokey should be avoided. Make online payments (via credit card, direct check, etc.) only on sites you know and trust. Many small online retailers don't have secure payment systems, so be wary of any system you are unfamiliar with. Utilize accepted payment methods that don't compromise your identity such as PayPal or Google Checkout.

Order and go over your credit report.

You can request and receive one free credit report a year from each of the three credit agencies. Do this every year and go over that report carefully, looking for discrepancies. The website AnnualCreditReport.com was created by the three reporting agencies in response to a federal law passed in 2003 on this issue. Check to make sure no accounts of which you are unaware have been opened in your name. Also watch for unusual activity such as address changes or other items you didn't authorize.

Know what phishing is and how to respond to it.

This technique, used by identity thieves that usually targets a specific site like eBay.com or Amazon.com pretends to be a site that you trust to get you to log into their system so they can capture your login information for the real site. Often these are perpetrated via email. One effective theft protection method is making it a habit never to click on links within email to visit sites you must log into, but instead to type the site's name in manually into your browser to be sure you're going where you think you're going. Watch your browser's location bar (URL) to make sure you're on the site you want to be on and not a fake.

Secure your home network.

If you have a wireless network at home, make sure it's secure. Most of the wireless networking kits you purchase today have security built in, but you have to activate it if you want it to work. Often, this is done for you on setup, but make sure it is there regardless. In the past, many have had their identities, financial information stored on their computer, and more stolen by thieves who merely wandered by their house with a laptop and hopped onto their unsecured network. Look to your network's setup disk or documentation to find out how to secure it.

Don't enter sensitive information into non-secure websites.

If the site you're on is one you trust to give your information, make sure it's also securing it. Likewise, if you're posting information on Myspace, a blog, Facebook, or anywhere else, make sure it's not identifiable for use with your credit. Your mother's maiden name, your passwords, and other detailed information about you should be kept to yourself and not broadcast to the world, as these items can be used to get access to your identity. Many famous people have found themselves in sticky situations because so much is known about them that they can't keep their information secured.

Set banking alerts.

Many banks offer a service that allows you to have them notify you via email or text message when your accounts have certain things happen: getting close to overdraft, having draft or purchase requests for more than $1,000, etc. Take advantage of these to keep informed the moment something strange happens on your account.

Use optimal security questions and passwords.

A very common mistake amongst users is to use the same password on several sites. This might be OK if the site is just a news or blog comment area, but for financial and personal information, it's very bad policy. Use secure passwords that are hard to guess and that contain both letters, numbers, and random capitalization. Make sure your security questions aren't easily answered by someone who knows something about you. Questions that even your spouse would have a hard time answering are the goal.

In short, take your protection from identity theft seriously and make sure you aren't taken advantage of by identity thieves. Identity theft affects your whole life and can ruin you financially and make your life miserable. Preventing it is a matter of a few precautions and vigilance, but is worth it.

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