In the Digital Age, it becomes increasingly more difficult to keep others from impersonating you or stealing your “identity.” With so many ways to expose yourself to the predations on online identity thieves, the average computer end user must be constantly vigilant. But what is identity theft?

Broadly, “identity theft” is the act of stealing personal information such as social security numbers, bank account numbers, passwords, addresses, emails, and other data that can be used to convince a third-party that the thief is you. This is usually done for financial reasons (to take out loans or apply for credit cards), but any motivation from the thief hiding his real self to selling the identity to others to using it for medical treatment is common.

While the methods of getting this information can be done in a myriad number of ways, a few common schemes include: “phishing” (the thief poses as a legitimate entity; e.g., a represented of your bank); “dumpster diving” (going through someone’s garbage for valid information), stealing physical items such as bank cards or checkbooks; “skimming” (which uses a device to record bank or credit cards information); hacking into a person’s personal computer, smartphone, or device; and “social engineering” (browsing social media, calling personal phones, etc.). There are obviously other ways that your information can be stolen, but these are the ones that most people will come up against. That’s the bad news. The good news is that a little common sense and a few “best practices” will help keep you more secure:

  1. Shred, incinerate, or otherwise destroy all old mail, correspondences, and letters that contain sensitive information. A cheap paper shredder runs around $10.00 USD, but a potential theft of your identity could cost you thousands!
  2. Never respond to unsolicited email, letters, phone calls, or other such communications. Most institutions will send you mail asking you to contact them and they almost never ask for confidential information. If unsure, simply avoid it or go in person to your institution. In particular, banks never ask for your information!
  3. Always run an antivirus and make sure your firewall is secure and operating.
  4. If you discover you’ve been the victim of theft (e.g., your laptop is stolen) report it immediately. Most police departments have a system they can use to check for stolen property that’s been sold elsewhere. Apple’s iCloud makes it all but impossible to hack into for most of its products. The latest Android update includes a feature to track your phone’s physical location.
  5. Make sure you don’t just give out important information to one-use services or websites. Use a “dummy” email if possible. Keep separate emails for your banking and financial accounts and your personal correspondence.
  6. Use a third-party service that offers identity protection. Identity Force offers monitoring, alerts, and even insurance to guard against identity theft and is one of the best services being offered currently.

The above doesn’t offer total protection! If you want to be totally protected from online identity theft you have to “unplug.” Instead, use common sense and be careful when it comes to giving out your personal information.