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You're ready to drive that new minivan off the lot when the salesperson gives you the bad news: You didn't qualify for the loan. He shows you your credit report with numerous unpaid accounts. Until today, you thought you had perfect credit.
"If a thief has your social security number and date of birth, he can look legitimate on a credit application," says Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit information and consumer advocacy organization. "I've seen people lose their dream homes because they suddenly can't qualify for a mortgage."
Sounds scary, but don't pull the plug on your computer just yet. You can reduce the risk of online identity theft by taking these steps:
Identity Theft Tip No. 1 Understand phishing and spyware.
Understand phishing and spyware.
Have you ever gotten an email that claims to be from your bank or favorite online auction and says something along the lines of "You must restore account access" or "Your credit card number on file is about to expire"? Well, most of these emails are actually sent by phishers, who take you to a spoof website where you unknowingly enter your account information -- only to have it stolen. Delete emails that ask you to reveal sensitive information, because reputable companies will never ask for your account information via email.
You also need to beware of spyware. These programs sneak onto your computer through email and pop-ups. Then they gather data as you type and send your passwords and other sensitive information to malicious hackers. Use antispyware software or an online security service to keep your computer and devices safe.
Identity Theft Tip No. 3 Don't use real words in your passwords.
Don't use real words in your passwords.
If your passwords include words from the dictionary, your birth date, the year you graduated college or the name of someone close to you (even spelled backwards), a criminal can easily figure them out on their own or with the help of specialized software. Instead, create passwords with more than six characters, and combine letters and numbers. For example, you might create a password that sounds like something you can easily remember -- such as lyrics to your favorite song -- but is spelled cleverly with letters and numbers.
Identity Theft Tip No. 4
Don't give to random charities.
Don't give to random charities.
Some unsolicited emails may ask you to contribute to unfamiliar charities or to get involved with real estate offers in other countries. These scams ask you to provide your bank account information online to someone you've never met. Once the scammer has your information, he can use it to clean out your bank account or commit other types of fraud. Never respond to email offers asking you for your bank account number or for money. If you have a favorite charity, contribute directly through its secure website.
Identity Theft Tip No. 5 Warn your kids about identity theft.
Warn your kids about identity theft.
Filtering software can help prevent your kids from sending out their home address and other personal information via email or the Web. But experts say you shouldn't rely on technology alone. Make sure your kids know why you don't want them giving out private data or responding to phishing emails. Let them know that they can always come to you with questions if they're not sure what to do. Also, gather your kids and check out safety-tip sites like GetNetWise.com together to make learning about online privacy a bit more fun.
If your identity is stolen, your first call should be to the police. Report the theft and get a copy of your police report. You'll need it when you call the three credit reporting agencies to put a 7-year fraud alert on your account. Also file a report with the Federal Trade Commission. Remember, the earlier you catch identity thieves, the easier it will be to recover.
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