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cartoon of a thief running away with a bag of money.

Don't fall victim to identity theft or phishing

By Shirley Anderson-Porisch

From eNews, February 10, 2005; updated February 22, 2005

Would you provide your personal information in these situations?

Situation A: You travel for work and arrive at the hotel where your company has prepaid for your stay. At the front desk, the desk clerk wants your credit card number.

Situation B: You apply for a library card and you are asked for your social security number, which will become the identification number for your new card.

Situation C: You order information, such as an archived newspaper story, off the Internet and one method of payment is a transfer from your checking account.

Identity theft is on the rise--one in 23 adults will be victimized in 2005, with a total loss exceeding $50 billion, reports the Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota (BBB). But savvy consumers can prevent themselves from becoming a victim by asking the right questions. In situation A, a hotel may ask for a credit card to ensure payment of charges such as telephone calls or room service. In situation B, libraries usually have other options for their user identification system. In situation C, Internet information sources may provide a variety of payment options.

According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), consumers should use "everyday diligence" when it comes to their personal information, such as credit card, social security, or financial account numbers. It advises that you ask such questions as, Why do you need it? How will it be used? How do you protect it from being stolen? and What will happen if I don't give it to you? It also doesn't hurt to ask if you could provide other types of identification instead.

Corrupt employees are to blame for eight percent of identity fraud cases, reports the BBB. While a lost or stolen wallet, checkbook, or credit card was the reason cited by almost 30 percent of fraud victims. The BBB also reports that 50 percent of identity theft is committed by people we know and trusted with personal information--a friend, family member, neighbor, or in-home employee.

Today, in this Internet age, phishing is another common way to steal a person's identity. This scam involves the use of fraudulent e-mails and Web sites to entice recipients into divulging personal information.

"If you receive an e-mail asking for personal information, make sure that you are confident of the legitimacy of the e-mail before following any Web links in the e-mail or entering any information," said Steve Cawley, the U's chief information officer, in an e-mail warning to the U community early this year about phishing scams. "If the e-mail is supposedly from a company, such as eBay, and you are unsure [if it's legitimate], go to their Web page by typing their Web address into your browser rather than clicking on links in the e-mail. Links in e-mails can have disguised or hidden parts that take you to a fraudulent Web page that looks just like the real one. But if you accidentally end up at a suspicious page, just quit your browser without entering anything until you can check [into it] further."

If you receive an e-mail that you suspect is a phishing scam, send a copy of the e-mail to the FTC at uce@ftc.gov.

To read a copy of the Better Business Bureau's 2005 Identity Fraud Survey report, see www.bbbmnd.org.

Shirley Anderson-Porisch is family resource management educator with the University of Minnesota Extension Service Regional Center in Marshall.