Identity theft has become one of the fastest-growing crimes in America today. Identity theft is the deliberate assumption of another individual's identity, usually to gain access to a person's finances or to frame that person for a crime.
Identity theft is primarily used to perform financial transactions (such as purchases using credit card number or take out a loan for a car) using financial accounts in your name. Less commonly, it is used to obtain medical insurance, file fraudulent tax returns, impersonate another individual during an arrest, open phone or wireless services, or even attempt blackmail.
Techniques for obtaining personal identity information range from rummaging through rubbish for documents with sensitive information, to infiltrating organizations that manage large amounts of personal information, to hacking into computer systems that store sensitive information.
You can fight identity theft by taking the following precautions:
- Never give out personal or financial information over the phone or in an email. Beware of "phishing" scams, where a pop-up message or email asks you for personal or financial information.
- Always use strong passwords at least eight characters long that have numbers and special characters (like: $, %, &), and that do not contain a word found in the dictionary. Change your passwords frequently and never share them.
- Use anti-spyware software daily. Spyware is software installed on your computer, often without your knowledge, that collects information about you.
- Avoid using software downloaded from unknown Web sites or peer-to-peer filesharing services. Avoid software that claims to be game, a screensaver, collect information for "marketing purposes" or promises to "accelerate your Internet connections." These are actually programs that can include spyware.
- Shred credit card receipts, junk mail, and other such documents with sensitive personal or financial information. Never leave these types of documents exposed in a public space (such as an office desktop).
- Never make personal information about yourself (like your birthdate, place of birth, family members' names) publicly available on social networking Web sites. This information can be easily found by search engines and used to help perpetrate identity theft against you.
For more information about identity theft, and for guidance on what to do if you believe you are a victim of identity theft, visit the Federal Trade Commission's web site on identity theft: www.ftc.gov/idtheft.