Beware! New Identity Theft Threats

Learn what they are and how to protect yourself

Your Wi-Fi is password protected. You change your online banking and email pins frequently. And you never share your Social Security number online.

If this describes you, congratulations—you’re protecting yourself from the typical kinds of online identity theft. However, experts warn that a far more sophisticated breed of identity fraud is on the rise on the Web. Here are the identity cons that are on the rise—and how to combat them.

The Threat: Spear Phishing
For years, identity thieves have been "phishing," posing as banks, retailers or other institutions and requesting financial information—usually via a poorly written, laden-with-typos email.

Today, swindlers are increasingly "spear-phishing," a far more targeted and sophisticated con. "You’re now more likely to see a phishing email that starts out ‘Dear Mrs. Johnson,’ rather than ‘Dear Valued Customer,’ and they’re more likely to come from what actually looks like your bank,” says Scott Mitic, author of Stopping Identity Theft: 10 Easy Steps to Security.

How to Protect Yourself
Mitic suggests deleting all emails that come from any financial institution, even those that appear to be from your bank. “If your bank really wants to get in touch with you, they will reach you through a means other than email,” says Mitic.

Instead, communicate with your bank by phone or via their Web page, which you should bookmark and use for all contact, rather than going through a search engine, says Michael Arata, author of Preventing Identity Theft for Dummies. The reason? Criminals sometimes create phony sites to appear in search engines.

Another option: Install a software program—like McAfee’s SiteAdvisor—that warns you when you’re clicking through to a suspect website.

The Threat: Online Spying
Unscrupulous computer whizzes once focused on creating viruses that could crash your computer, but today they have developed very sophisticated forms of spyware and malware that hack into your online banking account. Internet users unwittingly download the malicious software by clicking on corrupted links. The thieves are then able to watch virtually everything the hapless user does, such as typing usernames, passwords and Social Security numbers.

How to Protect Yourself
Installing anti-spyware and anti-malware to your computer is the obvious—and best—way to ward off online spies. These programs monitor your computer and alert you when suspicious activity arises.

Many reputable companies offer free or low-cost anti-spyware software, Check out Download.com for the latest reviews and ratings.

The Threat: Social Networking
Where can thieves harvest a person’s birthday, ZIP code and possibly even their mother’s maiden name—all in one convenient location? Your favorite social networking sites, of course. “Your Facebook username and password have as much value for a thief as the username and password for your online banking,” says Mitic.

Thieves sometimes take over social networking accounts and send emails to that individual’s contacts, asking for money. “There’s usually a great story that goes along with it,” says Mitic. “They got mugged on a trip overseas and just need a small wire transfer so they can get home.”

How to Protect Yourself
For Arata, the answer is clear: Don’t join social networks on which you give out a lot of personal information. But if you can’t live without your fix of friends of friends’ baby pictures, take precautions. Don’t publish your birthday online (is it really worth risking your bank balance to get that yearly greeting from college acquaintances?) and keep your profile clear of other potentially valuable tidbits, like your ZIP code and mother’s maiden name. And definitely don’t allow people you don’t know into your network.

Finally, when a friend emails you and 342 of her other closest pals asking for an emergency cash advance, step back and ask yourself why she didn’t just call a family member. "You have to react with a healthy does of skepticism anytime anyone is asking for money,” says Mitic. “Thieves are betting on the fact that you haven’t done that calculus."

How do you protect yourself from identity theft? Chime in below!

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