The times sure are changing. Ten years ago, shredders were things found only in offices to destroy confidential documents, social security numbers were commonly used as identification numbers and people didn't think twice about throwing things like canceled checks in the trash.
Today, things are different. Personal shredders are a common household appliance, the social security number is no longer used as a "public" identification number and most people now think twice about just tossing canceled checks and other confidential information in the trash.
The reason for these changes is that identity theft is the fastest growing white collar crime in the nation.
Being a computer technician, I am consulted by people and businesses on how to protect personal and private information.
At the start of these consultations we go through a question and answer period where I try to assess where the risks are (what kinds of information are at risk, how that information is stored and how that information may be vulnerable) and the more I do this, the more I see certain patterns immerge.
First, there seems to be a misconception that identity theft is primarily a financial issue. I find that many people are surprised to learn that you can have your identity stolen and never have it show up on your credit report or even have the event be related to a bank account or credit card.
If your identity is stolen it could be used to get medical treatment in your name, and next thing you know your medical records are now corrupted with someone else's blood type and medical history - a bad situation that your credit monitoring service won't necessarily catch.
Or, perhaps an identity thief might use your good name as an alias while committing a crime. Again, a credit monitoring service won't alert you when this happens; you are more likely to find out about it when the police show up at your door with a warrant because the guy using your name never showed up in court.
A second misconception that I run into over and over is what I call the "locking the barn after the horse has been stolen" syndrome; people tend to get lulled into a false sense of security once they start enacting good habits like securing their computers, shredding personal information and actively taking steps to protect their identities.
Now, don't get me wrong, these are definitely some good habits people must get into, but even if your computer and your information is locked up tight, keep in mind your information is already "out there in the world."
As we go through life and do common things like apply for loans, medical insurance, drivers licenses and such, we are invariably giving out that same information that we are protecting at home. The question you need to ask yourself is "how many companies out there already have my information" and "are these companies taking the same steps to safeguard my information as I am?"
In most cases the answer is yes, but unfortunately, in many cases that answer is no. Just about every week we can hear on the news about some organization that has a computer stolen or somehow loses a bunch of people's information. Sometimes millions of identities are compromised.
Another misconception is, "What does it matter if someone steals my identity? It's not like I'm rich or anything so they aren't going to get anything from me."
But the cold reality is that we are all vulnerable and even though it may only take an identity thief a minute to steal someone's identity, it can take years for the victim to get it restored.
OK, so, it's a problem that we all face. The question now is what can we do about it? How do you protect yourself online?
Update your virus protection software regularly. Use a firewall for extra protection. Do not download files or open email attachments from unknown individuals; they may contain a computer virus or other malware.
Before disposing of an old computer, have the hard drive reformatted to "wipe" or overwrite your hard drive. Avoid using the same password for multiple services (if one gets compromised it's very easy to get into all of them).
These are just a few of the basic tips you can use to protect your data but even taking these precautions cannot protect you 100 percent.
I don't know of anything that can.
Sean McCarthy fixes computers. He can be reached at (888) 752-9049 or help@ComputeThisOnline.com (no hyphens).