Cyber Crime and You: Avoiding Identity Theft

One of the most disturbing trends related to internet crime is the fact that so few people are disturbed by it; a recent survey revealed that most respondents wrote off cyber crimes such as common scams and “phishing,” or collecting personal information using misleading emails, as just part of the cost of doing business online. Since cyber criminals are rarely caught, it’s up to individuals to protect themselves in personal and business dealings on the Internet.

If you’re walking alone at night in a rough part of town, you take precautions: you walk in lighted areas, watch your surroundings, and mentally plan escape routes. And in a world increasingly driven by Internet commerce and connectivity, the same mentality applies to venturing online.

Much has been written about the obligation of parents to protect their children online, with advice such as avoiding posting personal information and questionable photographs, or visiting certain sites. Many of the same principles apply to adults, especially if you’re a heavy user of social media, do a lot of shopping online, or manage your banking and other financial services with online accounts.

“Defending your rights in the digital world” is the motto of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which regularly releases tips and suggestions for keeping online identities safe. Among their suggestions: don’t post real personal information such as addresses and phone numbers unless you’re very familiar with the requestor, close browsers and log out when you’re finished with your session, especially if you’re using a public or work computer, and disable cookies (bits of information used by advertisers and other companies to track users).

Among the EFF’s more controversial suggestions: never use your real name online. Rather, create a “cyber identity” that can’t be connected to your actual self and use it everywhere you do business online. But as Web 2.0 continues to evolve, there’s increasing pressure from many online communities to demonstrate that you’re a real person with a real name and location. In part, this move comes in reaction to the bad old days of the Internet frontier, when business wasn’t the primary function of the Net and users reveled in the fact that an overweight 50 year old could become a handsome young bodybuilder with the click of a mouse. But for those concerned with losing their identities to hackers and phishers just waiting for those passwords and access codes, the new web culture creates a problem.

Some solutions: create an online account to pay for purchases such a PayPal, and associate it with a dedicated email address. Avoid giving too many unique personal details on sites such as Facebook, and avoid sites that promise free trials of services but require a credit card “for processing.” Use basic firewalls and anti-virus software, and, just like that traveler on the nighttime sidewalk, avoid venturing into places you don’t know.

Online identity theft costs billions and ruins personal and public lives, and even puts global economies at risk. Combating cyber crime in forms small and large is one way to reclaim financial independence, as Jason Hartman advises. (Top image: Flickr | shawncampbell)

The American Monetary Association Team

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