With the rise of the digital age, there are now even more ways for criminals and other malicious individuals to target your sensitive personal information (such as your credit card number or bank account details). Not only can they acquire this information through physical means, the Internet has also become one of the gateways for them to come in, steal information, and wreak havoc. Once these details have been acquired, it is only a matter of time before they are used in unauthorised transactions.

What is identity theft?

Identity theft is the unauthorised use of your personal information to engage in fraudulent purposes. This includes, but is not limited to, stealing your credit card information and using it to purchase items, fraudulently claiming to be you in order to receive loans or other benefits, and a myriad other scenarios that involve your personal or financial information.

How does identity theft happen?

Identity theft can happen in various ways, both through the computer and through physical means. Physical methods include theft of your postal mail; sifting through the trash you throw out, hoping to find letters or other documents of importance; swiping the information from your ATM card; and direct theft of your wallet or purse.

However, these days, with Internet and computer use being so prevalent, online methods of stealing information have become even more dangerous. Three major ways of stealing your information online include phishing, keylogging, and the Trojan horse virus.

Phishing is defined as a fraudulent method of acquiring personal information, usually via electronic communication messages, while posing as a legitimate entity. For example, you can receive an email that appears to come from your bank, asking you to reply to the email or follow a link embedded within the email, to a ‘secure’ form where you can enter your account information and password in order to receive a prize or to take advantage of a special offer. By replying or following the link and entering your information, you have just given a malicious person all the information he would need to use your financial information in fraudulent ways!

Keylogging involves the secret installation of a small programme that logs all of the keystrokes you make on your computer, before stealthily sending that information to the initiator, who then sifts through and looks for information he can use – such as the username and password you used to access your personal accounts. These keylogging programmes get installed on your computer without you noticing, and they can come from a number of sources: an unsecure website you visited, an animated banner you clicked on, an email link you followed, a programme you downloaded from a website, or an attachment you downloaded from an email.

A Trojan horse appears to be nothing more than an interesting computer programme or file, which you may download without hesitation. Once this virus is in your computer, it provides a secret ‘backdoor’ or entry for malicious intruders to access, allowing them to read your personal information.

How can we protect ourselves?

As the saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.” Or, to put it more bluntly, “Better safe than sorry.” There are a number of ways we can protect ourselves from online identity theft. Here are some tips:

  • Always keep your antivirus and firewall programmes updated and running at all times.
  • Never use websites you don’t know, and always check the URL of a website that you are browsing, especially if there are any logins involved.
  • Never, under any circumstances, give out your credit card number via email or text message, or enter it on a pop-up window on the screen.
  • Never download programmes from any unsecure or suspicious websites, or from websites you are unsure of.
  • Never open email attachments from sources you don’t know or are unsure of. Always scan attachments before downloading, even for attachments from ‘trusted’ sources such as friends and family, for their accounts may be compromised.
  • Never access your personal accounts at Internet cafés, hotel rooms, or other publicly available Internet connections, as these tend to be unprotected signals that send data unencrypted – which can be intercepted and read by anyone monitoring those connections.
  • Use websites that display a security certificate, and try to use only one credit card for all of your Internet shopping. Always check your accounts for any suspicious activity, so you can inform your bank accordingly.