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Archives: Causes of Identity Theft and Prevention Tips

Originally published in August 2010
Simon Nguyen

There are two big misconceptions people often have regarding identity theft. Many people mistakenly believe that most instances of identity theft happen online, and that a majority of the offenders are either technical geniuses or expert criminals. I too used to be a believer in these misconceptions, until I had a chance to explore the intricacies of identity theft. You may be surprise to learn that human carelessness is frequently the number-one cause of identity theft. More often than not, the victims of identity theft are unknowing accomplices to the crimes committed against them.

Many identity thieves obtain private information on their persons of interest not from the web, but from discarded documents left unattended. There is a reason why many states and municipalities have enacted laws banning trash poaching. However, this would not have been an issue had people been mindful enough to shred these papers before putting them into the recycle bin.

But the carelessness does not end with what in the trash can. People are often all too eager to give away private information to those who do not have a business to know. I was once asked by a store cashier to show him my Social Security card to complete a credit card transaction. Even though most knowledgeable people would refuse such a request, I am pretty sure many people will do exactly what I did which was to give him my SS card. The only way to avoid instances similar to what I have described is to educate yourself on how to best manage your private information. When is it safe to share certain private data? Are the requesting parties those who have a business to know?

Recently, there is a huge debate on whether Facebook and other social networking sites are giving away too much of its users’ private data. Yet, a careful examination of the revealed data shows the impact to be minimal. The real threat of identity theft lies not on what one has posted on a website, but on the digital trail one leaves behind after each computer use. One of the things that absolutely irk computer security experts is the fact that many web users, even on public computers, fail to do something as simple as logging out of their online accounts after each session. As a former computer lab assistant, I had had to deal with things like this on a regular basis. The level of carelessness is mind-boggling.

My advice to people who want to enjoy computing, without the fear of identity theft, is to delete their search/browsing history regularly, to deny tracking cookies from unsecured/unfamiliar sites, and to frequently update your computer’s antivirus software. Additionally, you should also be wary of phishing emails. If something looks suspicious, you should follow your natural instinct and say no to it. Again, one should apply common sense and avoid carelessness. Keeping your private info safe is not a complicated task. If you are truly committed to protecting your identity online and offline, you have nothing to be afraid of.

The last identity theft myth I want to debunk is the idea that most online scammers are technical geniuses who are invincible in what they do. There is a huge difference between hackers and identity thieves. The chief aim of most hackers, who are really good at what they do, is not to steal someone’s identity but rather to prove their worth to fellow hackers. Most hacking incidents result in large data breaches, but rarely result in instances of identity theft.

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