|by Jodi Ito
When one hears the term “information security” we often envision large corporations and organizations trying to prevent their critical and confidential data such as your personal information from being stolen by hackers. And when we hear the term “identity theft” we think of hackers using that stolen personal information to buy thousands of dollars worth of goods using someone else's credit information and ruining that individual's credit rating. Hopefully, that victim is not YOU.
Identity theft is one of the fastest growing crimes in America. Why? Because people often fail to realize they are victims until much later, such as when they apply for a loan and are turned down. Identity theft is also a low-risk, high-reward venture for the criminals. It's often difficult and costly to track and prosecute. And while technology is making it easier to commit these crimes, many individuals' personal information is stolen using “low-tech” means such as stealing mail from home mailboxes or “dumpster diving” (searching through trash for discarded personal information). Therefore, we all need to be vigilant about our own personal “information security” habits.
Here are some tips to help prevent you from becoming a victim of identity theft. Secure your personal computer to prevent it from being hacked and infected:
- Install the latest operating system and software application patches.
- Install antivirus software and keep the virus definitions current. If you are a member of the University of Hawaii community, you may be eligible to participate in the UH McAfee enterprise antivirus license and use the McAfee antivirus software for free.
- Be wary of phishing and virus-infected emails; and NEVER respond to them with your personal information. If in doubt, always call the organization directly (using a phone number listed in a legitimate communication) to check on the contents of the email. Recent phishing schemes appear to be coming from local financial institutions such as Bank of Hawaii and First Hawaiian Bank.
Protect your personal information by monitoring your information security habits:
- Do not use public computers, or public unsecured wireless “hotspots”, to access your personal and financial information. It's very easy for a hacker to capture the wireless network traffic and look for user names, account numbers, and passwords.
- If you use peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing software AND you use that same computer to do personal/financial transactions such as your tax returns, make sure that you are NOT SHARING that personal information on the P2P network. For a report on this particular topic, see: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2005/05/03/eveningnews/main692765.shtml
- Shred any documents containing personal information (such as new credit card offers, outdated credit card and bank statements, medical records, etc.) before discarding. Preferably, use a cross-cut or confetti shredder.
- Use U.S. Postal mailboxes for your outgoing mail especially for bill payments.
- Do not print your Social Security Number (SSN) or phone number on your personal checks.
- Do not carry your Social Security Card in your wallet.
- If you still have a driver's license that lists your SSN, get a new one that has a Hawaii drivers' number on it.
- When someone asks for your SSN as identification, ask why they need it. Unless required by law or for tax reporting purposes, you should always question why a business or organization needs your SSN.
- Vigilantly check your credit card statements for any fraudulent transactions.
- Inspect your credit reports annually. Federal law mandates that you be given a free copy of your report every year. Each of the credit reporting agencies has their own web site and services. The easiest way to access free credit reports is through the centralized service established by all three agencies at: http://www.annualcreditreport.com.
More detailed information about securing your computer and protecting your information can be found at:
If you suspect you are a victim of identity theft, see:
The federal government also provides additional information at:
If you are a victim of identity theft it takes many, many hours of work to clear up the damage to your credit reputation, and the effects may linger for years. A little caution and vigilance can go a long way to prevent it from ever happening.