While a “wired” world has brought a number of conveniences — everything from online banking to tax returns filed over the Internet — it’s also created opportunities for criminals. Today, most people know someone who has been a victim of identity theft. What, then, are some of the steps you can take to avoid having your Social Security number, credit card information or important passwords stolen by identity thieves?

E-mail — the Gateway for Identity Thieves

E-mail is one of the most effective means for identity thieves to install viruses on computers or mislead people into providing important personal information that is later used to open a credit card, pay for medical bills or deplete a person’s bank account. Typically, identity thieves use e-mail in the following ways:

• Phishing: Identity thieves distribute an e-mail that appears to be from a legitimate corporation, bank or trusted source. These e-mails typically ask recipients to update personal information, confirm the purchase of a service or validate records by clicking on a link where they are taken to a form and asked to fill in certain kinds of personal information. The criminals then use the information entered to steal identities and commit fraud.

• Spoofing: Identity thieves create a website that is intended to look like that of a well-known merchant or trusted source. An e-mail is sent out advertising new products or services that can be purchased by clicking on a link that takes the recipient to the “spoofed” website. The spoofed website’s URL (web address) will be a minor variation of the real website being spoofed. Recipients who fail to notice the difference are misled into providing their address, credit card number, bank account or even their Social Security number.

• Trojan Horse Viruses and Keystroke Logging: Here, identity thieves distribute an e-mail attachment that appears to be from a trusted business or source. The e-mail typically instructs the recipient to open the attachment to confirm information or review a new policy or procedure. When the recipient opens the e-mail, a virus is downloaded to the user’s computer that installs a program that transmits everything the user types when using his computer. Eventually, passwords and other important personal information are gathered and used to commit fraud.

If you have a home computer you can greatly reduce your chances of becoming a victim of identity theft by using a firewall and antivirus software. Additionally, if you decide to make online purchases or transmit personal information over the Internet, make sure it’s encrypted and the security certificate of the secured transmission is current.

Protecting Your Social Security Number

Unfortunately, in the last 20 years, businesses, retailers, colleges, and even utility companies have decided to use Social Security numbers as unique identifiers for customers and students. As a result, if you pay for a purchase with a check, you’ll likely be asked to provide your Social Security number (SSN). Since you don’t know who else will see the check, you should avoid giving out your SSN unless required to do so by law. When making a purchase or registering as a student, you can ask to have a user ID created for you in order to avoid using your SSN.

It’s also important to store your SSN card somewhere in your home with other important records rather than carrying it in your wallet or purse. If you lose either or they are stolen, the thief can use your SSN to open a credit card account, deplete your bank account and commit other kinds of fraud.

Quick Tips to Protect Your Identity

In closing, you can use the following tips to avoid identity theft:

• Request a copy of your free credit report every year to look for opened accounts you aren’t aware of.
• Subscribe to a credit reporting service like Equifax, Experian or TransUnion to constantly track the use of your SSN and credit card information
• Don’t open e-mails from people or sources you don’t know.
• If you are suspicious of an e-mail from a trusted source, call them and confirm with them that they’ve contacted you, need the information requested or use the URL address on the linked website.
• Don’t open attachments on e-mails that seem suspicious or ask you to provide personal information. Most companies will not ask you to provide personal information over the web in an unsolicited e-mail.
• Use a firewall and antivirus software on your home computer.
• If asked to provide your SSN, ask if it is legally required, what it will be used for, who will see it, what measures are undertaken to protect you from its being stolen and whether the business, merchant or entity in question will accept liability for harm suffered by you in the event that it is stolen.

While not an exhaustive list, these tips are a good place to start when taking steps to protect yourself against identity theft.

Fixing Your Credit Report after Identity Theft

If your identity has been stolen, it’s essential that you contact Equifax, Experian and TransUnion to ensure your credit report is purged of fraudulent opened accounts or charges you didn’t make. If you encounter problems with credit reporting agencies, contact Dallas & Fort Worth bankruptcy attorneys at Leinart Law Firm today.