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Source: Sun Sentinel

Posted on September 12, 2008

      We use the Internet for everything. We shop, pay bills, work and play online.

      But the Internet has also become a playground for identity thieves. Criminals wait in cyberspace for the opportunity to steal your identity and commit crimes using your name.

      In 2007, identity theft topped the list of complaints reported to the Federal Trade Commission, the agency that enforces identity theft laws. Over the past two years, consumers and businesses have reported more than $100 billion in losses related to identity theft, FTC data shows.

      Florida ranked fifth in the nation for reported incidents of ID theft, according to the Identity Theft Data Clearinghouse. A recent report by Identity Theft Resource Center found at least 449 confirmed data breaches have already occurred this year — surpassing the number recorded in all of 2007 (446). These data breaches have compromised the privacy of sensitive information belonging to million of Americans.

      "Identity theft is a complex crime," said Linda Foley, founder of Identity Theft Resource Center, an advocacy group based in San Diego, Calif. "The Internet gives them [identity thieves] an advantage because they are faceless. They can apply for a credit card after stealing your identity."

      Cynthia Kravitch, a South Florida financial adviser, said she's still trying to clean up her credit after her identity was stolen early last year. Kravitch's wallet was stolen along with her checkbook, driver's license, credit cards and Social Security card.

      The ID thieves used her name to cash checks, opened bank accounts and got cash from ATM machines and tried to shop online, spending more than $10,000 before she discovered her personal information was stolen.

      "It's been a nightmare," said Kravitch, 50.

      Kravitch filed an alert with the major credit bureaus, but didn't know that alerts expire after 90 days. She thought her issues were resolved until collectors began calling her recently.

      "They opened credit card accounts that I closed after my wallet was stolen last year," said Kravitch, who sought help from the Attorney General's office.

Everyone's Vulnerable

      Consumer advocates said nobody is safe from ID theft, but consumers can take precautions to protect themselves. Among them: installing a firewall program and other protections, shopping only on secured sites, and ignoring e-mails that come from unknown sources.

      In 2006, 62 percent of ID-theft victims did not notify law enforcement officials that they'd been targeted, FTC data shows.

      "People should not be afraid to report these types of crimes to the police," said Howard Schmidt, a former White House cyber security adviser.

      Schmidt said more protections are available today than a few years ago, and many banks are getting better at building security systems to protect consumers.

      But Schmidt added: "Cyber criminals are more organized than ever. If they steal $1 million, they will get a lot of attention so they steal small amounts from different people."

Protect Yourself

      Adam Levin, chairman of Identity Theft 911, a company that educates and helps consumers prevent ID theft, said computer owners must upgrade computer's software programs to prevent ID thieves from accessing your computer. Once they gain access to your computer, Levin said, they can gather sensitive and personal information.

      "They are not likely to be your street pickpocket," Levin said. "They usually have a plan and the luxury to wait."

      In 2007, consumers were targeted by a series of schemes involving fraudulent or bogus lottery notices, jury duty alerts, IRS audits, account verification requests and check-cashing ploys.

      Experts predict such schemes will only become more common and sophisticated. Phishing, the practice of luring unsuspecting Internet users to a fake Web site in an attempt to steal sensitive information, is expected to grow and evolve posing further problems for Internet users.

      Identity Finder CEO Todd Feinman said hackers know where and how to get personal information from your computer.

      "Sometimes you type your Social Security number and credit card numbers," said Feinman, whose company is based in New York and sells software that was specifically designed to prevent electronic ID theft. "Every time you make a transaction, those numbers are left inside your computer."

      Levin said education is the best weapon against ID theft because thieves are always learning ways to hack into systems and steal information.

      "Never underestimate the intelligence and sophistication of an ID thief," Levin said. "Once we understand this, we will be better off."

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