We're all experts on identity theft.
Not by choice - but live your life, and it's hard not to pick up something on the topic. And odds are, you or a friend or family member has been a victim. According to a 2012 U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics survey of 70,000 people, 1 out of every 14 Americans ages 16 or older has been a target or a victim of identity theft. Last year, 16.6 million people fell victim to the crime, which resulted in financial losses of $24.7 billion, paid by consumers, companies and credit card companies.
So in the interest of protecting yourself and learning even more about identity theft, here are some things you probably didn't know.
[Read: 3 Signs You're About to Be Scammed.]
Military members are particularly at risk. Military veterans file more complaints about identity theft than any other group, according to Scott Higgins, CEO and founder of Veterans Advantage, a national program that partners with corporations, offering discounts on various goods and services. The Federal Trade Commission even designated July 17 Military Consumer Protection Day to help educate the military about the dangers of identity theft.
What is it about being in the military that makes members such prime targets? Higgins says servicemen and women are conditioned to provide whatever personal information is asked of them throughout their service. "Unfortunately, this 'conditioning' often stays with them beyond their careers, leaving them susceptible to both ID theft and data grabbers who bird-dog veterans - offering a small perk and then selling their personal data wherever they can make the biggest buck."
Medical identity theft is becoming a problem. Just because someone isn't using your credit card illegally doesn't mean you're safe from identity theft. Someone could be using your name to get free medical services at a clinic or hospital, "possibly sticking you with the bill," says Van Zimmerman, compliance and solutions architect at DataMotion, an email encryption and health information service provider in Morristown, N.J.
According to the Ponemon Institute, a research center devoted to privacy, data protection and information security policy, medical identity theft has increased 20 percent within the past year, and almost two million Americans have fallen victim. How does it happen? A thief with access to your personal information can create a fake ID with your name on it, and suddenly they're you - at least as far as a hospital or doctor's office staff knows.
Unfortunately, there isn't much you can do to avoid this since, as Zimmerman says, so much of consumers' medical files are managed by third parties. But it may give you yet another reason to be careful when it comes to giving out personal information.
Identity theft via computer games is a growing trend. According to Rob D'Ovidio, an associate professor of criminal justice at Drexel University in Philadelphia, video game accounts "are increasingly coming to the attention of identity thieves as they realize that these accounts hold real-world monetary value. Trends in phishing show attacks against financial services, online payments services and online auction brands decreasing, while attacks against video game and social networking brands are increasing."
Phishing, in case you're not aware, occurs when scammers construct a fake website with the goal of luring consumers to provide their personal and financial information. For instance, an email hits a gamer's inbox, stating there is a problem with their account information. The gamer clicks on the link and provides information to the scammer posing as the legitimate service. Or a consumer might receive an instant message, seemingly from a friend, with a link to a gaming website - but clicking on the link brings malware, a type of software that can disrupt your computer or steal your personal information.
[Read: 8 Ways to Create Stronger Passwords.]
D'Ovidio says criminals who manage to access video game accounts through phishing and other methods can also steal virtual money and virtual goods and sell them for real-life dollars. "As well, video game and video game console community accounts are, at times, tied to the account holder's or their parents' credit card," D'Ovidio says.
Search engine poisoning is more popular than ever. "Identity thieves are increasingly using a technique known as search engine poisoning to manipulate the results that show up and bend reality," says Hugh Thompson, a Columbia University computer science professor and the program committee chair of RSA Conference, an annual information security conference.
Thompson says identity thieves, hackers and attackers can manipulate search engines so that their fake websites "appear higher in the search results than the real thing."
Then, if it works, you've just been phished. Fortunately, there are ways you can spot a fake, and some of them are pretty obvious. If there are a lot of grammatical errors on the site, for example, that may be a danger sign. Many of the rules in the next section can help you realize you're about to be had.
Criminals like to put fake Wi-Fi hotspots up at public Wi-Fi hotspots. If you go to a hotel or airport and log onto the official Wi-Fi hotspot, generally speaking, you're perfectly safe. The problem is that you may wind up logging onto a fake Wi-Fi hotspot that simply looks like it belongs to your hotel or the airport, says Thomas Way, associate professor of computing sciences at Villanova University in Villanova, Pa.
[See: 10 Ways to Avoid Online Scams.]
Way adds that just to be safe, look at the URL of the first page. "It should match whatever the page claims to be," he says. "If it is a hotspot provided by the hotel, it should either be the hotel Web address or it should match the company that is providing the hotspot. If it is a spoof page, it'll be noticeably different."
Despite all the talk about online identity theft, you still need to watch your wallet. According to Phrantceena Halres, CEO of Total Protection Services Global, a Charlotte, N.C.-based security services company, only a fraction of identity theft cases are related to online fraud. "The majority is made up of stolen credit cards, checkbooks and wallets," she says.
That's because plenty of criminals aren't computer geniuses. Most of them are hoping you've been careless enough to leave your wallet, filled with cash and credit cards, lying on the passenger seat of your unlocked car.
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