Identity theft raises serious concerns in the age of information technology. While more cases of identity theft occur due to access to paper sources, there are still a sizeable number of cases being reported of identity theft occurring due to online activities. And with the increase in the use of Internet for everything from shopping to chatting to online banking, the risk of identity and privacy being compromised is also on the rise. Identity theft refers to knowingly using someone else’s identity as one’s own for financial or non-financial purposes. Congress in 1998 passed the Identity Theft Assumption and Deterrence Act that defined an identity theft criminal as someone who:

…knowingly transfers or uses, without lawful authority, any name or number that may be used, alone or in conjunction with any other information, to identify a specific individual with the intent to commit, or to aid or abet, any unlawful activity that constitutes a violation of Federal law, or that constitutes a felony under any applicable State or local law.

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Everyone who has been using Internet for sometime is aware of the possibility of identity theft and yet very few know exactly how they can make their identity more secure online. This is because expert hackers are always coming up with new and better ways to trick an online user into parting with his personal and financial information. One of the very common ways of getting access to a person’s information which can later be misused is called phishing. “Phishing refers to gathering identity information from victims under false pretences, such as pretending to be a representative of a financial institution collecting personal information to update financial records.”

This is where a person would receive an email that seems to be coming from a legitimate source. The email would contain links to a well-known retailer or bank’s fake site where they would ask for your financial or personal information including SSN which are being used by some fraudster on the other side. Phishing is a popular trick with identity thieves since many unsuspecting users have become victims of identity theft through legitimate-looking emails that even contained an authentic firm logo. This has caused serious damage as Gartner research group reported, “Phishing attacks in the United States soared in 2007 as $3.2 billion was lost to these attacks….3.6 million adults lost money in phishing attacks in the 12 months ending in August 2007, as compared with the 2.3 million who did so the year before.”

There are also spyware attacks, illicit pop-ups, spasm mail and several other ways of accessing financial information. This information is then used to make fraudulent credit card payments, opening new bank accounts or lines of credit and shopping online and other similar damaging activities. All this may happen while the unwitting victim is completely unaware of what is happening. By the time he realizes, his bank account and credit cards may already have been accessed and robbed. In the U.S., extensive drive to secure personal and financial information has resulted in some decrease in financial losses occurring due to identity theft but still in 2007, the loss was estimated to be around an overwhelming $45 billion in the United States alone.


As always, prevention is better than cure in the case of identity theft too. Once your personal or financial information has been compromised, it may take months and even years to secure them again. This may involve filing fraud case with your bank, information everyone about your stolen SSN and generally avoiding credit cards or debit card transactions. This is indeed a major problem getting one’s identity and peace of mind back once it has been compromised. For this reason prevention is the best way of protecting identity online. There are several ways in which this can be done.

1. Anti-Virus software

Internet users must have a genuinely brilliant and secure anti-virus program installed. Instead of copying free versions online, it is better to purchase a copy of licensed software and use it on your computer. This will help protect against hacker attacks and also alert the user when a suspicious web site appears. Anti-virus software also check for security certificates and inform users when a site’s certificate has expired so customers can refrain from making transactions through the site.

2. Spam Mail

One of the biggest sources of identity theft is spam email. It is best not to open any email that appears suspicious. Even if it doesn’t appear suspicious but asks for information that you do not want to disclose, simply ignore the email. Opening an email is not as damaging as clicking on any links that it may contain. Thus do not click on any hyperlinks even if you have accidentally opened some suspicious email.

3. Protection against phishing

The best way to seek protection from phishing attacks is to simply call up the customer service of the company that claims to be the sender. Call them and find out if they actually sent you such an email and if your account really needs to be verified. In more cases than not, their answer will be in the negative and that’s when you can pass on that email to the actual email address of the company so they can inform others of possible fraud.

4. Craigslist scam

It is important to know that when you place a free classified ad, there is a possibility that your personal or financial information may reach unintended recipients. Some fraudster might contact you purporting interest in your advertisement and may ask for your personal information. In some cases, for example when offering tutoring services, the fraudster may even ask for your bank account information so they can pay you for tutoring their child in the future. These are all attempts at getting access to personal information of the user which may later be abused. Then be extremely careful when you respond to any emails that you receive in response to any free classified advertisement you have posted online.


Javelin Strategy & Research, 2007 Identity Fraud Survey Report, February 2008.

Gartner, Inc., “Gartner Survey Shows Phishing Attacks Escalated in 2007; More than $3 Billion Lost to These Attacks,”

Kristin Finklea, 2009. Identity Theft, Trends and Issues. Congressional Research Service.

Finklea, 2009

Gartner, Inc., “Gartner Survey Shows Phishing Attacks Escalated in 2007; More than $3 Billion Lost to These Attacks,” Dec. 17, 2007.

Javelin Strategy & Research, 2007 Identity Fraud Survey Report, February 2008.