What Is Online Identity Theft?

Thomas Gilham

You’re probably already familiar with the concept of identity theft. It’s when someone steals your personal information to pretend that they’re you. It’s almost always done with malicious intentions.

In the old days, it mainly consisted of stealing someone’s checkbook, credit cards, or other personal documents that allowed thieves to perform tasks under someone else’s name. That typically required physical interaction, and you at least had a chance to stop the theft from happening or see the suspect.

The rise of the internet made identity theft a lot more complex, and it’s affecting more people every year. The online world has given you the ability to communicate with people around the world instantly, import products from other countries with the click of a mouse, and even shop for groceries without leaving your house. However, it also created a lot of opportunities for the world’s scum.

Now, thieves don’t have to quietly sneak into your purse or slip your wallet out of your pocket. They can just use your favorite device to steal from you when you least expect it, and the consequences are often a lot more serious than what they were before the online world was a thing.

They do this with a number of methods, but you’ll read all about that in the next few sections. Once you learn about how these thieves work, you’ll also find some helpful tips to keep you from becoming a victim.

How Can Identity Theft Affect You?

Identity theft has always had serious consequences, but it was easier to combat when everything was done in person. It was just easier to track down thieves. Now, the consequences ruin your financial status for a very long time, and they can even get you in legal trouble.

Once your information is stolen online, you can rack up massive bills without ever buying anything. If you don’t check your credit cards frequently or keep an eye on your bank account, you can easily lose thousands of dollars within the blink of an eye.

If you become a victim of online identity theft, your credit score is extremely likely to plummet. Thieves can buy homes, open up accounts with utility companies, and start a lot of other transactions that affect your credit score without you knowing. They might not even use your money. They can use your name and refuse to pay. That damages your reputation, and you’ll have trouble doing a lot of different things that are necessary for modern-day survival. The worst part is that you might not even know any of that is happening until the damage is already done.

Money isn’t the only thing at risk, though. You also have to worry about non-financial crimes. The internet has created opportunities for people to commit a lot of heinous acts, and all they need is a little bit of your information to let you take the fall for their actions. There have already been cases of innocent people being ripped from their homes because a criminal used their information to commit a crime far worse than stealing money.

Those types of crimes may be less common, but do you really want to risk being arrested for no reason? Even though you didn’t do anything and will probably be released, that effects your reputation with your community in the long-term.

The Different Methods Thieves Use

Identity thieves aren’t one-trick ponies. They have a number of different methods at their disposal, and new tactics are adopted daily. One method might require to click something fishy, and another might simply infect a download with a dangerous virus.

With all of the different methods being so drastically different, it can be difficult to fight against identity theft. That has a lot to do with why so many people are affected by it now.

It would be impossible to tell you about every program or tactic that thieves use. They simply create new methods too quickly, and there are a ton of variations for each program or tactic. However, it is possible to explain the eight main ways that thieves take your information. The following eight tactics are the concepts that all other methods are built off of.

Asking For Remote Access

Remote Access is a program feature offered by most operating systems. It gives you direct control over your home computer without having to be at home. This is great for managing your private network, accessing files that you forgot to take with you, and many other tasks.

However, it can also put you in a very bad situation. This type of identity theft is often done over the phone. A scammer can call your cellphone, claim that they’re someone important, and convince you to let them use your computer remotely. Once they have that access willingly given to them, they can do whatever they want.

They can find your tax backups, online receipts, account information, and anything else on your computer. They can then use that information however they please. Luckily, it’s not too difficult to stop this type of theft, and you’ll read about that further down in this article.

Cyber Phishing

Online phishing doesn’t include a rod and reel, and you won’t be enjoying a nice day on the lake if you’re affected by it. However, the concept is the same.

Phishing scams put bait in front of you like a fisherman would while trying to catch a trophy-sized catfish. Except, you’re the trophy-sized catfish, and the bait is usually an email that entices you with promises of money or some rare offer.

If you’re fooled by the email and click it, you’ll typically be re-directed to a site asking for your personal information. This tactic tends to work on people who haven’t used the internet as much as the average person, and scammers direct their bait emails to thousands of inboxes at a time to find gullible people.

You can also fall victim to a phishing scam by clicking any attached files or links in the email. Scammers will attach malware to those attachment files, and you’ll automatically download that malware when you view the files.

You shouldn’t feel bad for falling victim to these scams, though. As phishing has aged, scammers have learned to make their scams look as legitimate as possible. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some easy ways to avoid these scams, though. You’ll read about that later on.

Hacking

If you want to be technical, you can count every scam on this list as a form of hacking. This particular category is a bit different, though. Hackers aren’t going to rely on you to give them access to your information or click a bad download file. They look for holes in your security programs, and they do everything without interacting with you at all.

This typically requires them to find your IP address, but that’s not too difficult to do. When hackers attack you, they look for weaknesses in your system’s firewall, virus protection, network encryption, and other security features that you may not have worried about too much.

They don’t just attack individual devices. A hacker that knows what he’s doing can easily hack your entire network. That can leave every computer, phone, tablet, or other device that hooks up to your WiFi at risk of being hacked.

You probably won’t even know if this type of attack affects you immediately. The red flags can be pretty subtle, and if they take your money or identity, it might take a while to notice any changes.

Commandeering Your Profiles

People are figuring out that the internet isn’t a safe place, and thieves are getting a little more creative with how they steal from people. This type of scam uses you as the bridge between the thief and the victim.

Most often, thieves using this method will hack your social media account, and they’ll use the trust that you’ve built with friends to take advantage of the people you know.

They can do this in a few ways. Once they have access to your account, they can start a conversation with your friends and ask for money or information. A lot of your close friends won’t think twice about giving that up because they believe it’s you.

They can also share links to YouTube videos or meme pages to act like they’re just trying to entertain one of your close friends. However, they can attach software to those links or files, and they can get all of the information they need to take the information they want from your friends.

The effects of this type of scam are often seen pretty quickly. The thieves will target the majority of your friend’s list, and it’s likely that someone will figure it out and tell you. Sadly, they usually have enough time to get what they want.

Pretending To Be You

This is a lot like the last method, but it differs slightly. Instead of taking over your account, the thief will make an entirely new account, and they’ll use your photos and information to parade around as if they’re you.

This method is a little more difficult to catch. If they want to attack your friends, they can simply claim that you made another account, and they can do the same things they would with the other method.

However, they can also use things such as photos and profile information with another name to prey on random people. This is a common tactic used by catfish. They can use your likeness to gain the trust of random people, and they can use that trust to steal money, personal information, or much worse.

The worst part about this method is that you probably won’t know that you’re affected by it unless you actively search for fake profiles or stumble across one. If you’ve ever watched an episode of catfish, you know just how long people can get away with using other people’s pictures to prey on people.

If those people decide to do something far worse than stealing money or faking their way into a relationship, you can find yourself in a life-ruining mess until the truth comes out.

Downloading Malware

Whenever you download a file, you’re trusting the uploader to provide a safe file. If you download things from sketchy sites or without checking with a scanner, you open your device up to being infected with malware.

Malware is any type of program that is made to allow the creator to perform malicious actions. This type of scam can produce a number of horrible results.

Malware can be a simple keylogger program, or it can be a conduit for remotely installing even worse forms of software. To give you an idea of how badly malware can affect you, here’s a list of what the most common malware programs do.

  • Keyloggers: Keyloggers track every stroke that you make on your keyboard. That gives thieves the ability to see your passwords, messages, transaction information, and even that thesis paper your psychology teacher has you writing. They can see literally anything you type on your computer, and it doesn’t even have to be visible on your screen.
  • Installing Other Programs: If a hacker wants to keep themselves unnoticed during their initial attack, they might not install anything truly horrible at all. They can just make you download a program that allows them to install other programs. These files are small, hard to recognize, and capable of installing some pretty nasty programs. They aren’t dangerous on their own, but if a thief installs one on your computer, you can guarantee that the worst is yet to come.
  • Spyware: Spyware is similar to keylogger programs. It allows thieves to watch what you’re doing in real-time. That can mean they’re watching your computer screen, or it may mean they’re spying on you with your device’s camera. Both of those possibilities can have horrible consequences. If they’re watching your screen, they have access to most of the personal information you share. If they’re watching you, just think about all the things you do with your camera pointed in your direction.

Skimming Your Cards

Skimming isn’t exclusively used for online identity theft, but it is commonly used for it. Unlike most of the other online methods, this one requires the thief to do a few things physically.

First, they have to get close to you, or they have to install a skimming tool onto a device that handles transactions frequently. They usually use ATMs or card scanners that aren’t watched by cashiers constantly. Typically, that means that self-checkout lanes can be used for this.

Then, they have to wait for you to use your card at the device they tampered with. When you do, your card information is stolen, and it’s sent to whatever location they set the skimmer to send information to.

If they’re using an RFID scanner, you don’t even have to use your card. They just have to get close enough to pick up your card’s microchip. This is less common, though.

Once they have your card information, they can use it at any online retailer, or they can clone it onto a blank card. Once they do that, they can use your bank account however they want.

Pharming Information In Mass

Pharming is similar to phishing, and the two are sometimes combined, but pharming doesn’t solely rely on hoping someone clicks a sketchy email. Thieves that use this method create entire websites that are designed to trick people.

These websites can be entirely fabricated, but they’re usually designed to take advantage of the traffic that the largest legitimate sites have. They may change a small detail in the site’s URL, but the rest will look exactly like the real thing. When people don’t recognize the small differences, they trust the site with their information, and that information is immediately stolen.

This type of scam isn’t too difficult to avoid. It relies on trickery, and a lot of the sites have very obvious red flags attached to them. The creation of databases dedicated to tracking dangerous sites also helps.

Even if it is harder to have your information stolen by these sites, they still manage to steal the information of thousands of people every year, and it’s good to know how to keep yourself from being one of those people. You’ll find tips for that later in the article.

Theft Comes In Different Varieties

Online identity theft is done for a number of reasons, and they are all illegal and immoral. The people doing these things aren’t exactly good people, and their motives reflect that. Each of the eight core theft methods can be used to achieve one of eight different things.

Using Children

This is possibly the most disturbing form of identity theft. it involves minors, and it can set them up for a bad life before they’re every capable of making decisions for themselves.

Usually, a cyber thief takes from adults. After all, it makes more sense to steal from someone who actually owns things of value. However, a normal person probably underestimates how much a child’s identity is worth.

Children don’t have bad credit scores or reputations. Thieves can use that to that advantage when putting electric bills in a child’s name, ordering credit cards with their name, and other things that they can do with a child’s identity. A lot of companies won’t bother to investigate the Social Security number that is provided to them if it doesn’t have something negative attached to it. That makes it very easy for thieves to do this sort of thing.

It’s despicable to destroy a child’s credit score and reputation before they’ve even hit their teens, but people do it, and you should be prepared to protect your child.

Obtaining Finances

The most common type of theft has to do with your finances. Thieves are typically motivated by money. After all, it’s easier to steal from the working class than it is to actually work.

This type of theft can put you back thousands of dollars within a matter of hours. If you’re not careful, you can find yourself paying off someone else’s purchases for many years after you’re actually a victim.

Medical Reasons

Medical insurance is expensive. So, it only makes sense for someone who’s willing to steal to take information for medical purposes.

Once someone has your personal information, they can purchase medical care plans with your credit card information, and they can pay for anything from cold medicine to major surgeries with your bank account.

Technological Theft

Technological theft covers malware, skimming, and other hacking techniques that require advanced technology to do. This type of theft is difficult to combat because it often goes unnoticed until it’s too late.

Criminal Identity Theft

A thief doesn’t have to steal any money from you or pretend that they’re you to get a partner. In fact, one of the worst types of identity theft doesn’t involve any of that.

When a person gains access to your personal information, they can use it to evade police. Think about the last time you were pulled over and had to give an officer your information. If someone has your information, they can easily give the police your information, and they won’t have to face the short-term consequences of their actions.

Thanks to our advanced criminal database, police can usually sort a situation like this out within a matter of weeks. How long are you willing to be in jail for while it all gets sorted out, though? How much are you willing to pay in court fines and bail penalties for someone you don’t know? This type of crime is very important to protect against.

How To Keep Your Identity Safe

Now you know all about the different types of online identity theft. How do you combat them, though? It’s actually quite easy in most situations. A lot of the methods that were discussed earlier in this article rely on the thief interacting with you. The others are prevented by implementing simple security measures into your daily habits.

How To Beat Remote Access Hacking

This is an extremely easy one to prevent. All you have to do is deny any requests to remotely access your computer. This type of thief relies on you to become worried when they tell you that your computer is broken, and then you might decide to do what they say to fix what actually isn’t an issue.

Whenever someone calls you to ask for remote access to your computer, you should immediately hang up, and you might want to consider reporting the incident to authorities.

Account Hackers

Account hackers can use a number of methods to gain access to your social media accounts. They might use a keylogger, or they might install another form of malware that gives them access to you’re account.

To prevent this, you want to be careful when you download files or follow odd links. Try to stay away from all of those social media surveys. It may be interesting to see what your spirit animal is, but it’ll seem a lot less interesting when your account is being used to steal from your closest friends.

Besides practicing safe internet habits, you can also help prevent this by regularly scanning your computer with a competent anti-virus program.

Pharming Sites Are Easy To Avoid

Avoiding a pharming site is actually really easy. Thieves have gotten better at making their sites look legitimate nowadays, but they haven’t perfected it.

If you use a site a lot, you’ll be able to notice little differences in their logos, titles, and page organization. If anything feels off, you might have been directed to a pharming website.

You should also know that pharming sites often rely on phishing techniques to garner traffic. So, if you were directed to a weird website by an email link, you should probably just exit the page and warn others.

Fake Accounts

It’s hard to fight fake accounts. You can start by regularly entering your name into the search function of your favorite social media site, and you can Google yourself, too. If anything strange pops up, look into it. If you find a fake account, immediately report the account, and warn your friends. Legal action might be possible, too.

Sometimes, people who make fake accounts don’t use the name of their victim. Those are a lot more difficult to track. You can try seeing if your pictures pop up in other places on the internet, but that might not give you accurate results. You have to stay vigilant against these types of attacks to prevent them.

Preventing Skimming

Skimming can be difficult to notice, but it is possible. If the person is skimming via a card reader, they have to tamper with the machine.

A good skimmer will be able to keep the signs of tampering to a minimum, but you can still notice that the card reader jiggles a bit or has broken seals. If either of those things catch your attention, do not slide your card, and immediately report the situation to whoever owns the machine.

If a skimmer is using an RFID reader, you can prevent them from getting your information by simply buying an RFID wallet or purse. They prevent the remote scanners from picking up your credit card’s chip, and they’re pretty inexpensive.

How To Keep From Downloading Malware

Malware can be tricky to notice, but the proper tools make it painless. The best way to prevent being attacked with malware is to install a good anti-virus program. A good anti-virus software will scan any files that you download, and it’ll save you a lot of trouble.

If you want to take it one step further, you can refuse to download anything from sites that you don’t trust. You shouldn’t anyways, but it’s worth mentioning here.

If you do find yourself suffering from a malware attack, you should start scanning your entire system with your anti-virus software. It should automatically isolate the malware, and it should give you the option to remove the malware in a safe way. This will be more difficult to do as time goes on. Malware tends to grow in intensity as it remains on your device.

How To Prevent Security Hacks

Hackers rely on weaknesses in your security system to attack you. So, the best way to combat this type of theft is obviously to plug the holes in your security system.

To do this, you should always update your firewall and anti-virus software. You should also ensure that you have a proper password set for your WiFi adapter to prevent network hacks. Encryption helps a lot, too.

Some of these things might require annual payments, but they’ll keep you protected from thieves that will cost you a lot more than any paid software will.

How To Spot Phishing

Phishing is probably the easiest thing to avoid. If you manage your email relatively well, you should have an idea of what is normal and what is not.

Even if you don’t keep track of your email, it’s not difficult to spot a phishing scheme. Phishing emails will almost always promise you something that is too good to be true. It’ll most likely be money or a free vacation, and common sense will tell you not to fall for it.

As a rule of thumb, you should never give your personal information via email or other messaging methods. You should also refrain from clicking any files that are attached to sketchy emails. They might contain malware.

A Few Final Thoughts

Well, now you should know all about online identity theft, and you should be equipped to properly equip yourself if you follow the tips in this article. It’s important to know that protecting yourself always starts with your own internet habits. The majority of thieves rely on you performing some sort of action that gives them the information they need. If you don’t perform that action, most thieves will have to move on to find someone else to victimize.

If you’ve found anything useful in this article, you might want to share it with your friends. More than ten percent of the United States is affected by identity theft, and it’s most often a very serious matter. Do your friends a favor, and share this knowledge with them.