This time of year, New Year's resolutions are a common topic of conversation. People dedicate themselves to losing weight, watching less television, and finally reading those books which have been piling up. To add to the list, one resolution we should all make a priority is taking steps to protect our identity from cyber-thieves.
Just a decade ago, identity thieves typically stole personal information by going through a household's trash for billing statements or stealing credit card applications from a victim's mailbox. Extremely savvy criminals would place misleading phone calls, fishing for personal information from unsuspecting victims.
Today, advances in computer and wireless technologies have given these criminals the ability to steal your identity anywhere from their car to the comfort of their living rooms. These advances enhance criminals' ability to collect identification information through various techniques -- including hacking into personal accounts or simply driving through neighborhoods to prey on unsuspecting Internet surfers.
More than 11 million Americans were victimized by identity thefts last year at a reported cost of $54 billion. Cyber-criminals used the victims' names, addresses, and social security numbers to mask hundreds and even thousands of dollars in purchases. The average out-of-pocket loss incurred was $1,870.
These criminals don't simply limit themselves to attacking personal computers. More than half of mid-sized companies have seen increased hacker attacks in the last year. Even the Department of Defense receives six million "probes" every day.
Almost anyone can be a victim of identity theft, though a greater percentage of persons ages 16 to 24 are more likely to be victims than those ages 65 or older.
No matter what your age, however, you are the best line of defense to preventing identity theft. Just as taking simple steps like locking your front door and stopping mail delivery while you are on a trip can protect your house from burglars, taking some commonsense precautions to protect your identity can go a long way:
* Shred documents such as bank statements and credit card applications.
* Don't give out personal information over the phone or e-mail.
* Change your password periodically and avoid using common phrases.
* Enable your "junk" or "spam" filter on your e-mail account and keep your security software up-to-date.
* Never open attachments or click links from unknown sources.
* Double check the URL of a website before sending personal information. Malicious websites may look identical to a legitimate site, but the URL may use a variation in spelling or a different domain name (.com versus .edu for example).
* Rather than clicking on the link in an e-mail, contact the company directly using information provided on an account statement or other legitimate resource.
* Report any theft or misuse of your personal information to the police. This helps you restore your identity and helps law enforcement apprehend these criminals. While most victims reported the attack to a bank or credit card company, only about 20 percent of identity theft victims reported the incident to a law enforcement agency.
More information on how to protect your and your family online is available from the National Cyber-Security Alliance at www.staysafeonline.org.
Technology can be a wonderful thing, but in the hands of those less scrupulous, it can be a tool to disrupt your life and your financial well-being. By taking some simple steps to beef up our online security, we can start the New Year right and send cyber-criminals packing.