4 ways to safeguard personal information online
By Emily Starbuck Gerson
As Internet criminals grow smarter and sneakier, it's increasingly difficult to keep your credit card and personal information safe. If you don't take basic steps to protect your information, you may find yourself a victim of fraud or identity theft.
Stakes get higher
A few years ago, spam e-mails were mainly from people trying to make money selling little gifts and gadgets. If you fell for their spiels, you lost just the cost of a trinket.
When spam became illegal, "Folks trying to make a buck here and there mostly quit doing that because it wasn't worth it -- the risk was too high," says Charles Stiles, vice president of development for Goodmail Systems, an e-mail certification service. "Now you're left with the absolute criminals. They're not going to market a $9 flask -- they're going to do everything they can to get your credit card information."
A common tactic of spammers is to offer great discounts on high-end watches, fancy purses or pharmaceuticals. "They may also claim to sell cable TV scramblers or other fraudulent items that are very enticing to you," Stiles says. The difference between the new spammers and the old ones? The new spammers "have no intention of giving you the product. They just want your credit card information. They've gone from selling trinket things to make a quick buck to criminal activity to steal your every penny," Stiles says.
Ways to stay safe
That sounds ominous, but take a deep breath -- you're not doomed. Four basic steps can keep your information safe online:
1. Don't be paranoid, but be aware.
"Consumers don't need to be scared, but they need to be cautious and cognizant that there are people on the Internet that will take advantage if they allow them to," Stiles says. If something doesn't seem right, trust your gut.
2. Be cautious about providing your information.
Don't give your financial information or personally identifying details to organizations you don't know or haven't dealt with before. "Giving something as simple as date of birth and mother's maiden name can be catastrophic in terms of identity theft," Stiles says. He says it's important to know that personal information can be just as dangerous as financial information.
3. Be careful of the merchants with which you deal.
Try to make sure it is a legitimate site; not just a spoof of a real site. Only do business with reputable companies. "If you're in the real world and you're going downtown to go shopping, you're more likely to trust an established store you know using normal payment means," Stiles says. "You probably won't go in the corner alley to the guy telling you you'll get a good deal. When you're dealing with someone you don't know online, that's what you're doing."
4. Keep your eye out for scams.
Many people have become familiar with common scams and delete them without hesitation, but now there are more-convincing scam e-mails. "You and I are probably confident we're not getting $30 million from a foreign dignitary, but if you get an e-mail from what looks like the IRS saying you overpaid by $37.83 and that if you give your personal information, you'll be wired the money, it looks realistic," Stiles says. People hand over their information and compromise all their financial accounts. If you receive an e-mail from any institution asking for your personal or financial information, even if it appears to come from a place you trust such as eBay or Bank of America, do not respond. Instead, pick up the phone and call to verify that information is really needed. Many fake IRS e-mails have been circulating, along with other phishing attempts.
The future of e-mail
When asked about the future of online safety, Stiles predicts developing technology from companies such as his will improve the ability to catch fraud. But it will be an ever-escalating battle, with spammers and spam-fighters each making moves and countermoves. "It's going to get much more sophisticated."
While it's important to be cautious when giving out your information out online, don't be paranoid that everyone is out to get you. Just remember: "In a nutshell, if the deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is," Stiles says. "Legitimate marketers that are there to do business on the Internet are there to make a profit, and yes, you can get good deals sometimes, but make sure it's a reputable organization or marketer."
Related: CreditCards.com's PrivacyWise; wallet safety tips.
Updated: October 14, 2009