By now almost everyone has heard of “identity theft,” and probably knows someone who has been a victim. In today’s electronic world, where you communicate via the faceless world of e-mail and instant messaging, and make purchases electronically via the internet or even in face-to-face transactions when using a credit or debit card, it is relatively easy for technically savvy thieves to obtain your personal information and use it to commit frauds which can cost you significantly.
The first step to avoid becoming an easy victim is to simply be aware of how easy it is for thieves to obtain your information. Having an aware mindset will force you to think twice before entering your credit card or other personal info on a website you’ve never shopped on before, or responding to an e-mail from someone you haven’t previously communicated with. You need to be aware of some the tricks that ID thieves use, such as electronically “eves-dropping” on the signals between the credit card reader on the gas pump or store counter and your bank. The much-publicized case involving Hannaford Stores a few years ago came about through this method of ID theft.
Other tricks include e-mails that pose as popular on-line shopping stores, like Amazon, E-Bay, or even the U.S. Postal Service. These thieves will send out mass e-mails, sometimes even using personal information that can be gleaned from your e-mail address, in order to give them an air of legitimacy. They will claim that there is a problem with a pending or previous transaction, and ask you to enter personal information to confirm your identity so that they can work with you to resolve the problem. If you do so, they take your information and use it for their own nefarious purposes. Or, they use your reply to insert a virus on your computer, which can then be used to obtain even more personal information.
In addition to simply learning about the various schemes out there, a few easy tips can reduce the risks of electronic identity theft. Obviously, if you receive an unexpected e-mail, do not just hit the “reply” button reflexively. You should ask yourself if you actually have conducted business with the sender (or purported sender), and if you are not 100% sure, pick up the phone and call before communicating via e-mail.
If you are going to make an on-line purchase with a credit card, check the web address of the online store’s checkout process. It should have “https” at the beginning of the address. That address indicates a secure transaction, which will encrypt your personal information and keep it less vulnerable to unauthorized access. Also, refrain from the temptation to use debit cards whenever possible – even at point-of-sale locations like stores and gas pumps. Use a credit card instead. Most credit cards contracts have some form of fraud protection which allows you to dispute unauthorized charges. By contrast, a debit card transaction takes money right out of your bank account, and it can be very difficult to get it put back in.
Finally, stay on top of your finances. Carefully review your bank statements and credit card statements at least monthly, and get a regular credit score check done. If you have fallen victim to ID theft despite taking steps to stay safe in the first place, catching the damage before it becomes catastrophic is the next best chance to minimize the harm, even if it is a distant second place.
Douglas, Leonard & Garvey represents consumers in fraud matters and cases invoking the New Hampshire Consumer Protection Act. We have also sued negligent businesses who failed to take appropriate steps to safeguard consumers’ personal information. If you have been the victim of a consumer fraud scheme or identity theft scam, do not hesitate to contact us for assistance.