Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Identity theft: 9 million victims per year - News

Identity theft: 9 million victims per year - News

Nice article from the Iowa State Daily.

ISU scholars write book on identity theft protections

Andrea Fier

Issue date: 6/3/08 Section: News
Two ISU researchers, Steffen Schmidt, professor in political science, and Michael McCoy, graduate student, have written their second book on identity theft. The book covers the basics of identity theft and how to protect yourself online from identity theft.
Media Credit: Trevor Patch
Two ISU researchers, Steffen Schmidt, professor in political science, and Michael McCoy, graduate student, have written their second book on identity theft. The book covers the basics of identity theft and how to protect yourself online from identity theft.

Approximately 9 million Americans fall victim to identity theft each year, according to the Federal Trade Commission. The prevalence of identity theft prompted two researchers from Iowa State to write a book about the crime.

"It's a real problem because it's fairly easy to do. Crooks have discovered that it's a lot easier than getting a job," said Steffen Schmidt, university professor of political science and co-author of "The Silent Crime: What You Need to Know About Identity Theft."

Schmidt and his co-author, Michael McCoy, graduate student in interdisciplinary graduate studies, said identity theft is one of the fastest-growing crimes in the United States.

"It's scary what you can find out about people on Facebook and MySpace," McCoy said. "People are just trying to pick up data on you. They put little pieces of your life together until they get enough to assume your identity."

Anyone can be a victim, he warns.

"It crosses all races, ages and socioeconomic groups," McCoy said, "It's not really just hitting the wealthy, young, poor or the old, and that's what's frightening about it."

The book, which focuses on the basics of identity theft, is targeted toward the general public, McCoy said.

If someone steals your Social Security number or birthday, it's very difficult to prove that you're you, Schmidt said.

"You can show me your driver's license, but they have one too," he said.

Though many identity thieves use the Internet to find personal information, most are not hackers. Instead, many of these thieves depend on "social engineering" to trick people into providing their own information.

"People are the weakest link in security - so you can buy a multimillion dollar security system, but if someone lets out the password, it's all worthless," said Nathan Evans, graduate student in computer and electrical engineering.

Thieves often use e-mail to trick recipients into clicking on links to the thief's Web site. The site can then trigger an automatic download of malicious software, such as key-logging software, which keeps a record of everything the user types and lets an identity thief search through the record for sensitive information, such as credit card and Social Security numbers.

These Web sites can also install software that lets thieves run programs to commit fraud from your computer, making the crimes harder to trace.

"They use the links to dump a piece of software that is going to use your computer to commit crimes and you won't even know it's happening," Schmidt said.

Evans said identity thieves also use e-mail scams to trick recipients into volunteering their personal information. One example is the PayPal scam, which directs people to a site designed to look like PayPal, asking them to enter their username and password.

"A lot of times people will pick up personal information like a phone number and use it to bill you or sign you up for a number of other scams," Evans said.

Schmidt said it is important to use the security settings with social networking sites and be sure who you're adding as a friend.

"A lot of students just accept the person and, you know, the name might be familiar, but it doesn't tell you a lot about who it is," Schmidt said. "They may be trying to sell you something, or hit on you, or get to your friends and tell them they are a friend of yours to get information out of people that they shouldn't be giving out."

Although it is ultimately up to you to protect yourself, there are things you can do, including getting identity theft insurance.

"I'm a strong believer in using some type of identity theft service," McCoy said.

McCoy talked about "Identity Theft Shield" from Pre-Paid Legal Services, Inc., which monitors your credit report on a daily basis and sends you an alert every time the report changes, e.g. whenever you (or an identity thief) take out a loan. If you find fraudulent activity, some services will correct the problems for you, McCoy said.

However, consumers should be careful to know exactly what kind of coverage their service provides. LifeLock Inc., for example, advertises a $1 million guarantee, but that doesn't cover all cases - the guarantee only pays off if LifeLock fails to put an alert on the customer's credit report. LifeLock has been sued at least twice this year for deceptive advertising.

The Federal Trade Commission has more tips on its Web site at www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/microsites/idtheft.


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