MADISON, Wis. - Identity theft is one of today's fastest-growing crimes, making the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection's top 10 list of consumer complaints.
But what can people do to protect themselves from becoming a victim? Experts advise people to stop being so generous with personal information. Security professionals say that stealing identities is getting easier, but not because criminals are getting smarter.
Instead, their victims are handing over too much crucial personal information. Sharing knowledge like hometowns, birth dates, and the names of family pets may seem harmless, but could be a critical piece of knowledge for identity thieves.
Students at Madison College's Information Security program are studying how to outsmart hackers. Allison Smith said identity thieves don't take breaks so vigilance is key to doing everything to keep tabs on the disturbing trend.
"Even though I'm in this IT program, I don't think I'm sophisticated enough to make sure those things aren't happening," said Smith. "Because these hackers or crackers, whatever you want to call them, they know what they are doing."
Mike Masino, the director of the program, said one way to make it difficult for thieves is to use multiple e-mail accounts, one for family and close friends, the other for websites frequently visited.
"One of the strategies I can recommend is, don't link all of your different accounts together," said Masino. "Don't use the same user name on your password and Gmail and all of that. You don't want to have it set up so if they can get into one, they can get into all the rest of them."
Masino also warns against using public Wi-Fi. He said a not-so-savvy criminal could be monitoring the connection and waiting to steal a username and password.
"I could fire up a tool that would basically grab the log-ons for every single user in that room for every site they go to," said Masino. "Gmail, Facebook, eBay, everything."
As those in the Internet security field work to keep identities from getting in the wrong hands, their strongest advice seems to be to use strong, multiple passwords and only use public Wi-Fi for basic web searches.
They also recommended is a review of smart phones or tablets. If they are set to automatically search for an available Wi-Fi signal, that poses a risk of someone having an easier time stealing a user name and password.
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