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Don’t make life easier for identity thieves

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By Michelle Singletary
Syndicated Columnist
We've become a society that shares too much of our personal information, and all that voluntary transparency makes us vulnerable to crooks.
When companies fail to protect our privacy, we are rightfully upset. Javelin Strategy & Research, in its latest report about identity theft, says about 36 million people were notified of a data breach in 2011. Having your information lost or stolen during a breach doesn't automatically mean you will be a victim of identity theft, but it certainly greatly increases the odds.
Those who suffer data breaches are 9.5 times more likely to be victims of identity fraud than are other consumers, according to Javelin.
Last year, identity fraud increased 13 percent, affecting more than 11.6 million adults. Using stolen Social Security numbers or credit cards and other financial information, identity thieves buy cars, get cellphones and open new credit card accounts.
This is the ninth year of Javelin's examination of identity fraud and for the first time the research firm looked at social media and mobile phone behavior. Javelin found that people are making it easier for identity thieves to piece together the information needed to steal their good credit name because, as my grandmother Big Mama would say, "You're telling too much of your business."
People using LinkedIn, Google, Twitter and Facebook had the highest incidence of fraud, the company said. Javelin found that 68 percent of people with public social-media profiles shared their birthday information (with 45 percent revealing the month, day and year); 63 percent shared the name of their high school; 18 percent shared their phone number; and 12 percent shared the name of their pet.
The crooks know many of us are password weary. They know many people don't want to remember several passwords. They know that to make it easier for yourself, you choose a password you hope you won't forget.
Think about the details of your personal life you're posting. Are you revealing your likes, dislikes, favorite foods, hobbies? You may think these details are insignificant, but they can be opportunities for people skilled at mining such information to guess your passwords.
Do you absolutely have to tell everybody and their mama on your Facebook page or on Twitter about the latest escapade of your pet, especially if you use your pet's name as a password or part of a password?
Then there's your smartphone. We are increasingly carrying around some of our most sensitive personal information. The survey found that 7 percent of smartphone users were victims of identity fraud, compared to the 4.9 percent fraud rate among the general population.
Javelin said that part of the increase in smartphone users being identity-fraud victims could be attributable to the fact that many users don't update to a new operating system when it becomes available. Many people don't use a password on their phones, so if it's lost anyone can access the information stored on the device. Keeping your telephone in the "always on" mode makes you more vulnerable. Do you have any passwords and log-in information stored on your smartphone?
By the way, of those consumers aware that their identities had been stolen, 9 percent of the subsequent crimes were committed by someone the victim knew. I mention this because you are probably less careful about leaving your phone lying around when there are people around you that you know.
"Consumers must be vigilant and in control of their personal data as they adopt new mobile and social technologies in order to not make it easier for fraudsters to perpetrate crimes," said James Van Dyke, Javelin's founder.
Javelin has a quiz you should take to see how well you are protecting your personal information. I took the quiz and, although I did well, there were several areas where I should have done better. For instance, I didn't know how to wipe my smartphone clean in the event it's stolen. Javelin recommends checking to see if your phone has a remote wipe switch or downloading an application that will erase the data on your mobile device.
At least I have password protected my home screen and have adjusted the settings so that the phone automatically shuts down soon after I stop using it.
Michelle Singletary:
Washington Post Writers Group

Take the quiz
Go to You might be surprised at how careless you're being. Once you take the quiz and get your results, you'll also get tips on how to improve your identity safety.
Story tags » Internet & CloudPersonal FinanceIdentity theftFraud



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