The holiday shopping season begins shortly and e-commerce retailers like Amazon and eBay are already vying for a larger share of sales with massive e-mail campaigns and discounts.
The expansion of online sales and banking is tempered by consumer fears that using a computer to make purchases potentially exposes them to identity theft or fraud.
“When protecting yourself from identity theft, so many of the steps you have to take start in the home before you even get on a computer,” said Rob Coleman, a computer science and technology professor at the Allegany College of Maryland’s Somerset campus.
In fact, online methods only accounted for 11 percent of identity theft cases versus 43 percent from stolen wallets and physical paperwork in 2008, according to the latest figures available from the Department of Justice.
The department also estimated that 11.7 million people in the U.S. suffered either an attempted or successful instance of identity theft in a two-year period.
“Those statistics show how really important it is to guard yourself against this,” he said.
The biggest threat to personal security happens every day when the mail arrives.
“Those credit card applications are a great way for a thief to get started. They already contain a lot of important information they can use to open an account,” Coleman said.
Shredding those along with any other documents like bank statements that contain personal information before putting them in the trash is an important step, said Karen Addleman, vice president of electronic banking for Somerset Trust Co.
“There are dumpster divers, people that will go through your garbage just to find personal information,” she said. “Ripping up a credit card application or other documents just isn’t enough. Everyone should own a shredder.”
Identity thieves only need a few scraps of information in order to open a fraudulent account. A social security number, full name, birthday, drivers license number and street address can put a thief well over-the-top in the race for personal security.
That means limiting the information you give to anyone either by mail, phone or email, Addleman said.
“I know that in our case — and with most other financial institutions — that we’re never going to call you or email you requesting account information,” she said.
Following a few rules when it comes to computer use will also help limit the threat of fraud, Coleman said.
Experts call it layered security and it starts with the password. People should have different sets of passwords for online financial sites versus social accounts.
The password should also not be “password.” “You’d be amazed at how many people use that,” Coleman said. Birthdays, anniversaries, names and phone numbers should also be tossed out.
A secure password should include numbers, letters, symbols and punctuation. A phrase with personal meaning to the user like “I hate broccoli” — which shouldn’t be too well-known unless there was some serious childhood vegetable trauma going on — can easily be turned into a secure easy-to-remember password.
The subsequent password Ih8br@cc@li! is rated strong by Microsoft’s password strength tester located at their online Safety & Security Center.