Information Technology Security: Stay Safe Online
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Preventing and Responding to Identity Theft
Identity theft, or identity fraud, is a crime that can have substantial financial and emotional consequences. Take precautions with personal information; and if you become a victim, act immediately to minimize the damage.
Is identity theft just a problem for people who submit information online?
You can be a victim of identity theft even if you never use a computer. Malicious people may be able to obtain personal information (such as credit card numbers, phone numbers, account numbers, and addresses) by stealing your wallet, overhearing a phone conversation, rummaging through your trash (a practice known as dumpster diving), or picking up a receipt at a restaurant that has your account number on it. If a thief has enough information, he or she may be able to impersonate you to purchase items, open new accounts, or apply for loans.
The internet has made it easier for thieves to obtain personal and financial data. Most companies and other institutions store information about their clients in databases; if a thief can access that database, he or she can obtain information about many people at once rather than focus on one person at a time. The internet has also made it easier for thieves to sell or trade the information, making it more difficult for law enforcement to identify and apprehend the criminals.
How are victims of online identity theft chosen?
Identity theft is usually a crime of opportunity, so you may be victimized simply because your information is available. Thieves may target customers of certain companies for a variety of reasons: a company database is easily accessible, the demographics of the customers are appealing, there is a market for specific information, etc. If your information is stored in a database that is compromised, you may become a victim of identity theft.
Are there ways to avoid being a victim?
Unfortunately, there is no way to guarantee that you will not be a victim of online identity theft. However, there are ways to minimize your risk:
Do business with reputable companies - Before providing any personal or financial information, make sure that you are interacting with a reputable, established company. Some attackers may try to trick you by creating malicious web sites that appear to be legitimate, so you should verify the legitimacy before supplying any information.
Take advantage of security features - Passwords and other security features add layers of protection if used appropriately .
Check privacy policies - Take precautions when providing information, and make sure to check published privacy policies to see how a company will use or distribute your information. Many companies allow customers to request that their information not be shared with other companies; you should be able to locate the details in your account literature or by contacting the company directly.
Be careful what information you publicize - Attackers may be able to piece together information from a variety of sources. Avoid posting personal data in public forums .
Use and maintain anti-virus software and a firewall - Protect yourself against viruses and Trojan horses that may steal or modify the data on your own computer and leave you vulnerable by using anti-virus software and a firewall. Make sure to keep your virus definitions up to date.
Be aware of your account activity - Pay attention to your statements, and request copies of your credit reports from the main credit reporting companies on a yearly basis.
How do you know if your identity has been stolen?
Companies have different policies for notifying customers when they discover that someone has accessed a customer database. However, you should be aware of changes in your normal account activity.
The following are examples of changes that could indicate that someone has accessed your information:
- unusual or unexplainable charges on your bills
- phone calls or bills for accounts, products, or services that you do not have
- failure to receive regular bills or mail
- new, strange accounts appearing on your credit report
- unexpected denial of your credit card
What can you do if you think your identity has been stolen?
Recovering from identity theft can be a long, stressful, and potentially costly process. Many credit card companies have adopted policies that try to minimize the amount of money you are liable for, but the implications can extend beyond your existing accounts. To minimize the extent of the damage, take action as soon as possible:
Contact companies, including banks, where you have accounts - Inform the companies where you have accounts that someone may be using your identity, and find out if there have been any unauthorized transactions. Close accounts so that future charges are denied. In addition to calling the company, send a letter so there is a record of the problem.
Contact the main credit reporting companies (Equifax, Experian, TransUnion) - Check your credit report to see if there has been unexpected or unauthorized activity. Have a fraud alerts placed on your credit reports to prevent new accounts being opened without verification.
File a report
File a report with the local police so there is an official record of the incident. You can also file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.
Consider other information that may be at risk - Depending what information was stolen, you may need to contact other agencies; for example, if a thief has access to your Social Security number, contact the Social Security Administration. You should also contact the Department of Motor Vehicles if your driver's license or car registration have been stolen.
The following sites offer additional information and guidance for recovering from identity theft:
- Federal Trade Commission - http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/pubs/credit/idtheft.htm and http://www.consumer.gov/idtheft/
- United States Department of Justice - http://www.usdoj.gov/criminal/fraud/idtheft.html
- Social Security Administration - http://www.ssa.gov/pubs/idtheft.htm
(Produced by US-CERT)
email questions, concerns or comments to Security@uthsc.edu
Avoiding Social Engineering and Phishing Attacks
Do not give sensitive information to anyone unless you are sure that they are indeed who they claim to be and that they should have access to the information.
What is a social engineering attack?
To launch a social engineering attack, an attacker uses human interaction (social skills) to obtain or compromise information about an organization or its computer systems. An attacker may seem unassuming and respectable, possibly claiming to be a new employee, repair person, or researcher and even offering credentials to support that identity. However, by asking questions, he or she may be able to piece together enough information to infiltrate an organization's network. If an attacker is not able to gather enough information from one source, he or she may contact another source within the same organization and rely on the information from the first source to add to his or her credibility.
What is a phishing attack?
Phishing is a form of social engineering. Phishing attacks use email or malicious web sites to solicit personal, often financial, information. Attackers may send email seemingly from a reputable credit card company or financial institution that requests account information, often suggesting that there is a problem. When users respond with the requested information, attackers can use it to gain access to the accounts. How do you avoid being a victim?
Be suspicious of unsolicited phone calls, visits, or email messages from individuals asking about employees or other internal information. If an unknown individual claims to be from a legitimate organization, try to verify his or her identity directly with the company.
Do not provide personal information or information about your organization, including its structure or networks, unless you are certain of a person's authority to have the information.
Do not reveal personal or financial information in email, and do not respond to email solicitations for this information. This includes following links sent in email.
Don't send sensitive information over the Internet before checking a web site's security.
Pay attention to the URL of a web site. Malicious web sites may look identical to a legitimate site, but the URL may use a variation in spelling or a different domain (e.g., .com vs. .net).
If you are unsure whether an email request is legitimate, try to verify it by contacting the company directly. Do not use contact information provided on a web site connected to the request; instead, check previous statements for contact information. Information about known phishing attacks is also available online from groups such as the Anti-Phishing Working Group (http://www.antiphishing.org/phishing_archive.html).
Install and maintain anti-virus software, firewalls, and email filters to reduce some of this traffic (see Understanding Firewalls, Understanding Anti-Virus Software, and Reducing Spam for more information).
What do you do if you think you are a victim?
If you believe you might have revealed sensitive information about your organization, report it to the appropriate people within the organization, including network administrators. They can be alert for any suspicious or unusual activity.
If you believe your financial accounts may be compromised, contact your financial institution immediately and close any accounts that may have been compromised. Watch for any unexplainable charges to your account.
Consider reporting the attack to the police, and file a report with the Federal Trade Commission.
(Produced by US-CERT.)
email questions, concerns or comments to Security@uthsc.edu
Protecting your Privacy
Before submitting your email address or other personal information online, you need to be sure that the privacy of that information will be protected. To protect your identity and prevent an attacker from easily accessing additional information about you, avoid providing certain personal information such as your birth date and social security number online.
How do you know if your privacy is being protected?
Evidence that your information is being encrypted - To protect attackers from hijacking your information, any personal information submitted online should be encrypted so that it can only be read by the appropriate recipient. Many sites use SSL, or secure sockets layer, to encrypt information. Indications that your information will be encrypted include a URL that begins with "https:" instead of "http:" and a lock icon in the bottom right corner of the window . Some sites also indicate whether the data is encrypted when it is stored. If data is encrypted in transit but stored insecurely, an attacker who is able to break into the vendor's system could access your personal information.
What additional steps can you take to protect your privacy?
Do business with credible companies - Before supplying any information online, consider the answers to the following questions: do you trust the business? is it an established organization with a credible reputation? does the information on the site suggest that there is a concern for the privacy of user information? is there legitimate contact information provided?
Do not use your primary email address in online submissions - Submitting your email address could result in spam. If you do not want your primary email account flooded with unwanted messages, consider opening an additional email account for use online . Make sure to log in to the account on a regular basis in case the vendor sends information about changes to policies.
Avoid submitting credit card information online - Some companies offer a phone number you can use to provide your credit card information. Although this does not guarantee that the information will not be compromised, it eliminates the possibility that attackers will be able to hijack it during the submission process.
Devote one credit card to online purchases - To minimize the potential damage of an attacker gaining access to your credit card information, consider opening a credit card account for use only online. Keep a minimum credit line on the account to limit the amount of charges an attacker can accumulate.
Avoid using debit cards for online purchases - Credit cards usually offer some protection against identity theft and may limit the monetary amount you will be responsible for paying. Debit cards, however, do not offer that protection. Because the charges are immediately deducted from your account, an attacker who obtains your account information may empty your bank account before you even realize it.
(Produced by US-CERT0)