The information age dictates. It entices each one of us to put more of our identity into the public domain, online. Risky? Yes. Information Technology gurus, banks, and public authorities have been alerting us to the fact that online identity theft is currently the fastest growing crime. Ten million Americans were victims of identity theft in 2012. 

 Identity theft occurs when someone acquires key pieces of another person’s identity with the intent to commit fraud. The unusual thing about this crime is that people only find out when they are turned down for a loan or credit card. In fact, identity theft — the crime, not the movie — has been a growing phenomenon for several years.

 Online identity means different things to different people. To an avid user of Facebook this is likely to include name, date of birth, location, ethnicity, gender, and much more. To conduct banking online, identity is more formalized; name, address, date of birth, account balance, payees, etc. To book an airline ticket online, your identity comprises no less than name, address, passport number, gender, and bank details. These are deemed as user profiles. To a thief or scammer, however, this is your identity!  Your identity is personal. It’s the way you see and define yourself. So too is your online identity.  

The criminal justice system agrees. The Data Protection Act 1998 asserts that “data which relates to a living individual who can be identified either from the data or from the data in conjunction with other information” belongs to the subject it identifies and nobody else. So, whether completing a mortgage application, booking a holiday, signing up for a free Facebook account, or banking online, you temporarily loan your personal data (identity) solely for the purpose of the transaction(s). 

 There have been many high profile cases of online identity theft. Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, Martha Stewart, and Will Smith were each victims. I need not worry about online identity theft, I hear you say — who is brave enough to take on my debts? Correct: No-one wants your debts. Identity thieves simply seek to profit from using your identity. How? Well, to obtain a loan, purchase an iPad, rent a boat, or even sell your details to a third party that bulk buys identities — Google this: Why Gang Members want your identity.

 So — do you take steps to protect your online identity? Out of interest, I took a pipette of the national pulse. I asked Bermuda, “How do you protect yourself from online identity theft?” A shopper on Reid Street says, “I just use passwords and try and make my passwords as strong as possible”. A Network Manager for a midsized Bermudian company says, “I use passwords as the first line of defence... the stronger the better… I use several languages”. One of Bermuda College’s students says, “by not putting up pictures of myself and to make sure my information is confidential, and only certain people have access to my profile”. What do you say? If your online identity is taken, the police cannot help with your credit record or undo the damage that has been done.

Taking proper precautions with your online identity is the best protection. You check each window and door for your home are locked every night, right! You keep your passport in a safe place too, right! Fortunately, there are easier and less risky ways to lower the odds of becoming a victim to online identity theft. These steps are not draconian. They don’t suggest that you shut down your Facebook account or cease to bank online, nor, speak only in Latin to verify your identity to the bank when on the cell phone in public spaces! 

So, what to do? Get-a-checkup: take online identity quizzes. These provide useful tips and steps to take that we don’t initially consider important. Look-for-it: only provide personal details on secure websites (look for “HTTPS” in the URL or the lock icon in the corner of your browser). Shred-it: destroy all personal documents before discarding them. Tighten-up-on-tech: automatically password lock, turn off Bluetooth, GPS, and Wifi when not in use on all devices. Be-choosey: if it’s not compulsory to provide your address (or other personal information) on a form, consider not including it. 

We must hold ourselves accountable for managing our personal details that we “loan”. This way we can minimize the risk of becoming a victim of identity theft. n

Dr Barrington Brown is Senior Computer Information Systems Lecturer at Bermuda College.
For more about Bermuda College, contact Recruitment Officer Thaao Dill on 239-4099.
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