Most people are aware of identity theft and how it can happen to anyone. We also know that it can be devastating. What most people don’t know is that identity theft on the Internet is only a small part of the whole problem. Barely 11% of the total cases of ID theft each year happen online. It’s important to protect yourself from online identity theft, of course, but it doesn’t require cutting off your Internet or going “stone age.” A few simple precautions will go far in helping to protect you from identity theft on the Internet. But don’t let that be the end of it. Most ID theft happens offline, so make sure you’ve done your homework there too.
For now, let’s look at Internet safety.
Here are a few simple things you can do to protect you from identity theft on the Internet. After the list, we’ll discuss these in more depth.
- Know what “https” and “SSL security” mean and use them.
- Do not use debit cards for online purchases or shopping. Use credit.
- Never send personal information through email.
- Know what “phishing” sites look like and how they advertise, so you can avoid them.
- Be aware of the computer you’re using and how the information you’re putting on it can be stolen.
This list is a little scary, isn’t it? Especially if you aren’t sure what all of the things on it mean. Don’t worry, though, most of them are extremely simple and just require you to know about them for them to begin protecting you. Identity safety on the Internet is not difficult.
Look at your Web browser right now. Down in the right hand corner (off of the Web page) might be a little padlock symbol. If not, go to a secure website like PayPal. Any website with “https” at the beginning of its URL (address) is a “SSL secured” site. That padlock in the corner, when closed, means that the secure connection is complete. Whenever you make purchases or enter personally identifying information like credit cards, driver’s licenses, etc. into a website, be sure that little padlock is there. Otherwise, you’re not sending the information securely.
Why shouldn’t you use a debit card on a website to make purchases? If your debit card is attached to your checking or savings account, then you put that entire account at risk when you use the debit card for any transaction. Worse, those accounts are much more difficult to clean up after identity theft has occurred. The protections on those accounts are often looser than on credit card accounts. Think of it this way: your checking account has a balance of $500 and your credit card has a credit limit of $5,000. If your bank account is cleaned out via your debit card, you’re out $500. If your credit card is maxed out, you’re only liable for the first $50 (BY LAW). No such protection applies to debit.
Never send any kind of personal information through email. Whether it’s your Social Security Number, your credit or debit card number, or other personalized information like your driver’s license number, it should never be sent by email. Why? Because email is not secure and makes a very long, circuitous route to get to its final destinations, stopping over in many locations along the way. An email to your neighbor across the street might travel across the country, into Canada, or even overseas before coming back to your neighbor’s house.
“Phishing” is a term used to describe emails, websites, and instant messages made to look like something they are not. For instance, an email claiming to be from your bank might actually be a phishing email from a group of thieves attempting to get your personal banking information from you. The email looks legitimate and the website it links you to looks just like your bank’s website, so you might not think any differently and enter your account login information or PIN numbers without a second thought.
The easiest way to keep from being phished? If your bank sends you an email, DO NOT reply with personal information and DO NOT use the email’s links to go to their site. Enter the site manually yourself, instead. It’s possible to “mask” the URL in your browser’s address bar, so that is not a guarantee that you are where you think you are. Typing the site address manually is the only 100% safe way to make sure you’re on the site you should be.
Finally, make sure you understand the safety of the computer you’re using. If you’re using a public computer like at the library or in an Internet cafe, do not enter personal information into it. Believe it or not, even logging into your email site can put you at risk of losing your information to a thief. Keep personally identifying information off of those systems. If you travel with a laptop, the same rule applies. Wipe information from it or keep it on a removable drive that you can keep with you safely (like a “thumb” drive).