Identity theft - criminal on laptop

Villains love a bit of what’s now called identity theft. It used to be known as credit card theft or skanking someone’s bank account, but with the global ubiquity of the Internet and the fact that so much personal information is now online it’s happening on an industrial scale. Malware creation alone is estimated to be worth about $1billion a year.
Some forms of malware are designed to extract banking details, credit card numbers and so on from your computing devices. A lot of people put a lot of money into it, paying developers to come up with ever more ingenious malware designs.

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From the cyber criminals point of view ID theft is ideal; they’re anonymous, out of sight and almost undetectable. In fact, in the UK if you do have your ID stolen and it’s used to carry out fraud, the police won’t even investigate unless the amounts involved are over £100,000.

See also: How to protect your laptop, smartphone and other tech kit

The next big trend for ID theft is slated to target smartphones precisely because the market is so huge, and the growing trend towards making contactless payments with these devices. An analyst house called Strategy claims there are now one billion smartphones out there. So, in short you need to protect that precious thing.  

Identity theft – what can really happen?

ID theft isn’t just about the lifting of online information. You can also lose your personal details in a number of equally harmful ways whether it’s having your credit card stolen, your pocket picked and your brand new iPhone 5S or 5C lifted, or your house burgled.

Opportunist thieves will simply make as many purchases as they can but the ‘professionals’ will go that extra mile and use the details they gather to really go to town. This can be potentially devastating for the victim and it has become so common within the cultural psyche that several films have even been made about it.

Perhaps you’re an optimist and think ‘it will never happen to me’ or - if it does - the bank will eventually foot the bill. This is the rationale that many hackers use to justify stealing someone’s identity.

But have you ever thought about what it’s really like to have your identity stolen? The horror when you realise that your account has been emptied or your credit cards have been maxed. The stomach churning anxieties as you try to get some resolution, or the absolute headache of having to beat off creditors that you owe money to but can’t pay.

It simply makes far more sense to ensure you don’t get into that position in the first place. Below are some typical scenarios, both online and offline, in which you could find your information and simple tips on how to protect yourself.

How to make sure you don't become a victim of identity theft

Get the basics in place. Make sure you’ve got a strong password on your mobile device. If you can, configure your device to erase all data after a certain number of failed passcode attempts. It might seem dramatic but you’ll be screaming very loudly if your  bank account gets hacked via that smartphone you’ve just lost or had stolen.  

Data back-up

This is like putting your precious jewels in a vault. We all lose stuff and a lot of us have stuff stolen. With the latest tranche of smartphones retailing for around £600, for a thief they’re are as irresistible as a bright shiny object is to a small child. If you protect your device with a strong password you’ll be cooler than a summer breeze because you know no one is going to get to your data should your device be stolen or lost. But if you haven’t got your data backed up you might just finding yourself weeping into that dog-eared address book you’ve just dug out of the back of the drawer. You’ll lose your contacts, your pictures, videos and files...need we go on? Back it up. Regularly.

See also: How to backup your PC and laptop

Watch out for malware

Mobile malware is the next big thing. Back in the day, when lumpy PCs were making inroads into the workplace people used to laugh at the idea of protecting them against viruses. Today, you’d be a fool not to. Today’s smartphones are yesterday’s PCs and they need protecting too.  There’s already a mass of mobile malware building up, much of it headed for Android devices.

And this isn’t code that’s written by script kiddies, it’s sophisticated, designed by hardcore hackers who know their stuff and who are targeting mobile banking software to hide stealth viruses that can steal your banking information. If they don’t empty your account of money, they might simply sell the information on. So get some software that provides malware protection and you can rest assured that your identity and credit card details are safe from hackers. BullGuard is set to release a new version of its mobile security software.  It’s got just about everything you’ll need, even remote control commands should you lose your mobile.

Contactless payments

It’s relatively small scale at the moment but with most major industry players such as Apple, Samsung, Google and wireless network carriers showing deep interest its only a matter of time before it becomes commonplace. There are flaws that can be exploited.

In theory a hacker could steal your data from the airwaves as you make the payment. However, the signal range tends to be short so a scammer needs to be in close distance with a device that will pick up the signals. Critics (i.e. those who have an investment in contactless payments) say this type of signal eavesdropping is rare and difficult. The hacking of a million personal details from Sony’s servers in 2011 might have been difficult, but it didn’t stop it happening.

Our advice is not to take chances. If you’re making this type of payment ask the people who are taking the payments whether the signals are encrypted. If not, don’t do it. And check whether the signals you are sending are encrypted. If in doubt, use your credit card instead. These little things can very well keep your personal details from getting stolen by identity thieves.  

Physical theft

This has been with us since they chopped your hands off in the Middle Ages for theft. And it’s not going away. The problem is today that the online world offers a world of opportunities for a thief. If your credit card is stolen it can be used to make any number of purchases from online stores. Most banks have analytics software that look for patterns in transactions and if something is out of the ordinary it will block the payments. However this might not happen before you’ve already inadvertently bought cinema tickets, enough pizza for a small army, red slinky sling backs and a brand new iPhone.  A simple tip is to ensure that your purse or wallet is tucked away well out of sight and out of reach of stealthily wandering hands. See also: how to stop your laptop and other gadgets being stolen.

Online shopping and bill payments

The golden rule is ensure that the web site is bona fide and secure.  There should be a padlock symbol in the browser window frame, which appears when you attempt to log in or register. Be sure that the padlock is not on the page itself, because if so it’s likely to be a fraudulent site. The web address should begin with ‘https://’. The s stands for secure.

If using the latest version of your browser, the address bar or the name of the site owner will turn green.  Always log out of sites into which you have logged in or registered details. Simply closing your browser is not enough to ensure privacy. Keep receipts, electronic or otherwise, and check credit card and bank statements carefully after payment to ensure that the correct amount has been debited and also that no fraud has taken place as a result of the transaction. And finally, make sure you have effective and updated antivirus/antispyware software and a firewall running before you go online.

ID theft - shredderShred it

Get yourself a cross-cut shredder that destroys documents by cutting horizontally and vertically. Use it to destroy your old documents such as bank statements or tax forms, or anything that could be of use to an identity thief.

Public Wi-Fi

If you want to go online with your tablet or smartphone on a free Wi-Fi network, keep your browsing quite general. Don’t make banking transactions or start tapping in passwords for secure sites. For a hacker, it’s relatively easy to scoop up the data that’s travelling across public, unsecured Wi-Fi. They just need to be sitting in the area with their laptop, like lots of other people, and using some simple tools to download all the data, including passwords.

Watch out for the ATM shuffle. A bit obvious but watch out for that person standing a bit too close at the ATM. It’s a bit old style but still used. Perhaps more importantly, have a quick scan of the machine. Is it a machine you use regularly, has it changed, are there signs directing you to another nearby ATM?  Fake card scanners are not uncommon. They’re installed on the card intake slot and record your number as you type it in.

Padlock around money credit cards

And finally… keep your antivirus software up to date.  Many computer viruses, worms and Trojans, collectively known as malware, are designed to install malicious software onto your computer. Some of these include key loggers that can record your bank password as you type it. Keep your anti-virus software up to date to guard against these threats. Make sure your antivirus software can also detect new types of malware. After all, you wouldn’t leave your house with the door wide open would you?

As an extra precaution, we recommend the use of a dedicated identity-protection software that will alert you when any of your personal and financial information is found on the web.