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How can I prevent identity fraud online?

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The words ‘identity fraud’ can strike terror into some, but you don’t need to get too stressed, You just need to be aware of the risks posed, always remain vigilant, and take steps to protect yourself. That way, you should prevent yourself from becoming a victim.

Jane Fae | 9th September 2010

One problem with the internet is that it seems so friendly. Join a social networking site, sign up for a chat forum, express an interest in some unusual hobby, and - hey presto! - some individual will pop up to say hello and swap anecdotes.

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Most of the time, they will be as innocent as they sound but just occasionally, they won’t be. Just occasionally, your new-found friend is only interested in one thing: your identity. Once they have that, it really is open season on your life, including finances, personal relationships, and anything else that takes their fancy.

Is that scary? It should be. But don’t let it be too scary. As with every other situation in life, you should be aware of the risk and take sensible precautions - without cramping your lifestyle.

ID nowadays is about personal, intimate information: date of birth, mother’s maiden name, address, passwords. The more information you hand out to strangers, the more vulnerable you become.

How we expose ourselves online

First off, there are all those websites you need to register with before they’ll allow you to interact. How much information do they require from you? And how much of that information is then shared with other users of the site?

It’s definitely worth checking because whatever you can read about other users, they can read the same about you. Even if the site displays little information, how trusted are the site owners? Again, it is not an everyday occurrence – but enterprising scammers have been known to set up a whole website just to capture details from the unwary.

Never buy from a website on the basis of an unsolicited email. If it’s offering you a brilliant deal, check it out first - see if there is a phone number (and that it works) and look for other references.

What about friends, the people you know you can trust? They’re okay – as long as they really are your friends. Research shows that many of us are all too ready to make friends with people we’ve never met on social networking sites like Facebook. But these new ’friends’ can see a lot of information we may think we’ve kept hidden.

A common-sense approach

So what can you do? Always be careful. Don’t go handing over information if it isn’t totally necessary. Think about who you are interacting with – site owners as well as other visitors – and never give away details you’d think twice about in everyday life.

A good rule of thumb? If you wouldn’t paste it on your front door for every casual passer-by to read, you should be very careful who you show it to on the net. Make sure you have different passwords for important sites (like your bank) and sites you only visit for social chit-chat.

Finally, consider not being wholly truthful with key details. If a site wants your date of birth, give the month and day, but not necessarily the correct year. Unless you are deliberately hiding information for fraudulent purposes, it isn’t unlawful – and sometimes, being too honest may just have consequences you’d rather not think about.

Jane Fae

Jane Fae

Jane is a consultant on database marketing and crm, as well as a nationally known writer on issues of political and sexual liberty. She also writes for the Register, one of the world's biggest online tech publications, about current affairs, policing and the law as it impinges on technology users.