chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.

Identity Theft 101: What you need to know

by Yuliia Litvinchuk, Law Technology Today

What identity theft comes down to is that your personal and confidential information ends up in the wrong hands and gets used without your permission for purchases and all kinds of fraudulent activities.

The scary part is that most of us willingly make our personal information available online, and it is easy for cybercriminals to steal it. Considering that we all use technology and the internet, this could happen to anyone. On the upside, though, identity theft can be prevented with some basic knowledge, planning, and awareness.

How does identity theft happen?

  • Data breaches
    A data breach is when someone gets unauthorized access to a company’s data. During such a breach, names, Social Security numbers and credit card information are among the most common information stolen. Although it is almost impossible to keep information completely safe from data breaches, there are steps to minimize the risk.
  • Unsecure browsing
    You can browse the internet safely by sticking to well-known sites, especially websites with security certificates. The problem is when you enter your information on an unsecured or compromised website. In this case, you could be handing your information directly to a thief. Luckily, modern browsers usually warn us when we try to access risky websites.

Marketplaces on the dark web

Stolen information often ends up on the dark web. It is a concealed network of websites that regular browsers can’t access. The stolen information usually gets sold to other people with potentially criminal intentions.

The dark web is a refuge for fraudsters as they use special software when they visit it to mask their identity and activities. Your information is then up for grabs by anyone if it ends up on the dark web marketplace.

Malware activity

Malware is malicious software designed to inflict anarchy on a computer once it is installed. Cybercriminals can use it to steal your data or spy on your online activities.

Credit card theft

Credit card theft is one of the most common forms of identity theft. It usually happens through data breaches, physically stealing your card, card skimmers, and at online retail accounts where your card details are stored online.

Phishing and spam attacks

Thieves usually get hold of your personal information by using electronic communication means such as email, and this communication mostly looks reputable. The main goal of these emails is to get you to render your personal information.

For instance, you might get an email that looks like it is from your bank, and within it could be a link that takes you to a bogus website that looks exactly like your bank’s website. If you enter any information on that website, such as credit card number, Social Security number, or even a username and password, it ends up directly in the hands of thieves.

So, whenever something about an email doesn’t seem right, delete it. It might be an identity theft attempt.

Wi-Fi hacking

Whenever you use your laptop or phone while connected to a public Wi-Fi network, such as those at the airports or coffee shops, you need to be cautious of what you enter because hackers also use those networks. By entering any personal information such as your bank or credit card number while on a public Wi-Fi network, a hacker on the same network may intercept it, and you will become another statistic.

Card skimming

Criminals use skimming devices by placing them over a card reader at gas stations or ATMs without looking suspicious. As soon as a debit or credit card is swiped, the information on the card’s magnetic strip gets read and is either stored or transmitted. Therefore, although it is difficult, try to make sure the machine you’re swiping on is safe, or if you hand your card to someone to swipe, keep your eyes glued to it.

How to protect yourself from identity theft

It may seem almost impossible to guard your private information completely without any risk, but there are ways to protect yourself from falling victim to identity theft. Here are some important tips to stay safe online:

  1. Make sure you destroy all private statements with confidential information, especially those containing banking and credit card details.
  2. When you are approached by salespeople, for instance, make sure you know who you are talking to and who they represent. If they are legit, inquire about their privacy policy or inform them you will contact them directly. When you do, confirm what they tell you is legitimate before you reveal any information.
  3. Always carefully review your credit card statements before you pay the bill to make sure you recognize all purchases, merchants and locations of the transactions.
  4. You can have a security freeze, or a fraud alert, placed on your credit report account. The security freeze will block anyone from accessing your credit report. However, companies you currently have business with and who already have legitimate access to your report will retain their access. The freeze will not affect your credit score, so everything is fine. The fraud alert is valid for 90 days and instructs a creditor to contact you first before granting credit in your name in case it is someone else using your credentials.
  5. Don’t ever let your credit card out of your sight. If you can’t keep your eyes on it, then pay with cash. You don’t want your card skimmed while out of your sight.
  6. Ask to have your name removed from hit lists of call centers by registering on the national Do-Not-Call registry. Also, opt-out of all subscriber lists and credit card solicitations, and cut down on junk mail.
  7. Try making your passwords complicated because it is challenging to hack a complex one. Security researchers found that only 0.03% of 550 million passwords make use of spaces. They are valid characters and will increase your password strength.
  8. Try to keep your antivirus software up to date. Always make sure you are running the latest version on your devices.

Looking at these possible ways to steal personal information almost scares you from going online and protecting your information seems dooming. Fortunately, it is not all that bad. Stick to the basics as you mostly do anyway.

You don’t walk around and share your banking details or show your credit card or bank statements to whoever asks for it. Just do the same online. Be as wary and careful of what you enter online as you are in real life.

Yuliia Litvinchuk is a content coordinator at with an unquenchable thirst for cybersecurity. You can often find her at her computer locating the latest information in the field. When not working, she can be spotted watching 1980s and ’90s anime and reading sci-fi comics.

This column originally appeared here

ABA Law Technology Today was launched in 2012 to provide the legal community with practical guidance for the present and sensible strategies for the future. LTT brings together practicing lawyers, technology professionals and practice management experts from a wide range of practice settings and backgrounds. LTT is published by the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center.

The material in all ABA publications is copyrighted and may be reprinted by permission only. Request reprint permission here.