Sure, it’s just Hollywood doing its thing. But the film can’t help but stir up a few questions for me: is identity theft, a life and livelihood-destroying crime, best treated as a throwaway vehicle for a few laughs? Is this fair to the growing millions of victims it impacts every year? Or just another example of Hollywood exploitation. After some thought, I came to the conclusion that anything that helps raise the profile of this underreported and little understood crime is probably a good thing. And maybe even the victims could use a few good laughs.
And now for the more serious side… Identity theft is defined as the fraudulent acquisition and use of a person’s private identifying information(PII) such as social security numbers and credit cards. The United States Department of Justice statistics show this to be a big problem: 7% of all households – 8.6 million – had at least one family member victimized by identity theft last year.
It’s a crime with both direct and indirect costs. In addition to the billions taken directly from the pockets of individuals and businesses, there is also the lost time. The Federal Trade Commission reports it takes consumers an average of 6 months and 200 hours of effortto recover from an identity theft. The need for identity theft protection is undeniable.
Data can be stolen from just about everywhere – your car, your trash, your wallet, your desk and yes, increasingly by online hackers, the real life bad guys perpetrating online identity theft..
A moving target is an easier target
The trailer for Identity Thief does not show how Sandy Bigelow Patterson had his identity stolen – but it does show an epic car trip as he tries to recover it.
In real life, people are more vulnerable on the road than at home. In addition to their exposure to the standard assortment of malware they would encounter at home, they are more vulnerable to snoopers and hackers as they connect to unsecured networks.
For starters, PC’s are always susceptible to malware like the ZeuS Trojan. Transmitted through email links and infected websites, ZeuS focuses on stealing bank account details and has caused a reported $1 billion in damage to consumers and businesses over the last five years. The best defense is a good antivirus program with a healthy dose of user caution. This is one important component of an identity theft shield. Another fact the movie misses is that children are 20 times more likely to be victims of identity theft because they have limited credit or employment histories.
But AV will do little to protect your identity when you are browsing the internet. Particularly when you are on the road, using shared or unsecure public Wi-Fi. It’s an open invitation for hackers. Most internet browsing is done via unencrypted pages with an http:// prefix – not a good idea when sending sensitive information. Encrypted web pages are marked with the HTTPS prefix (S for secure) and have a little lock symbolin the corner. These protocols are often mixed, with surfers logging in on a secure page then being shifted to an unencrypted page for the remainder of their visit.
Good connections matter
The infamous Firesheep program, which lets its users capture other Wi-Fi user’s “cookies” — or Internet history tracking data — and use these cookies to step into the other users’ e-mail and social network accounts, highlights the risk to consumers. The developer intended Firesheep to demonstratethe danger ofincomplete encryption, not as a hacker toolkit. But it, and similar easily downloaded programs, are available to anyone and can be used to steal your identity.
The other essential tool to shield you from the dangers of unprotected browsing and protect your identity is a VPN client. Installing and using a VPN effectively turns every page into an HTTPS page. The Hotspot Shield VPN encrypts every packet of information traveling from your computer to our proxy servers around the world. This secure tunnel shuts out potential eavesdroppers from your online life and makes your identity more secure.
Perhaps if the victim in Identity Thief had taken a few precautions he wouldn’t have ended up as one more unhappy, cybercrime statistic.
Lyle Frink on Google+