Beware of online ID theft

By Jennie Bragg, producer


NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Identity theft is on the rise and increased Internet use, whether on a PC or a handheld device, may be to blame. 16% of American households with the Internet reported some kind of identity theft last year, according to a recent survey by Consumer Reports.

So how can you keep your personal information safe online?

Secure your computer

If you access the Internet at home via a wireless network, having a firewall is a must. This helps to form a barrier between your trusted network and any untrusted networks trying to access your computer. "Another biggie -- change the administrator code to your wireless network. The key is not keeping the default settings," says Mario Armstrong, NRP Technology Contributor and host of Sirius XM's "The Power."

And make sure you regularly update anti-spyware, anti-phishing, and anti-virus software. "Having anti-virus protection is an important thing that a lot of folks forget about. Most of these programs are subscriptions, so you can't assume that you just have them on your computer or that the subscription lasts more than a year," Armstrong warns.

Protect your handheld devices

Make sure to secure your mobile devices, like smart phones or iPads, with passwords and encryption just in case they are lost or stolen. For many people, these devices contain just as much personal information as a home computer. Additionally, Armstrong recommends having, "a pin code on your accounts, so that to make any changes regarding your personal accounts, you have to have a four digit code access to access them."

And do your research before you download free apps to your device. You never know who might have access to your personal data via your apps. According the App Genome Project created by LookOut, 29% of free applications on Android and 33% of free applications on iPhone have the capability to access a user's location. Similarly, 8% of free applications on Android and 14% on iPhone have the capability to access user's contact data.

Keep your info to yourself

Beware of social networking sites. This is where most personal information is lifted. So consider how much you post on your page. If your date of birth, phone number, address, or maiden name appear on your Facebook or Myspace page, these could be used to find out a whole lot more of your information.

Mario Armstrong's rule of thumb: "It goes back to the definition of a friend. Some information should only be shared with the people that you have the ultimate trust for." Not sure you can trust all your online "friends"? Set restrictions on your profile so only certain groups can view your personal information.

And never give out personal information, like your social security number, in an e-mail. "Phishing" e-mails may look like they are coming from your bank or credit union, but if you are affiliated with a bank, that institution already has your private information. They don't need you to e-mail it to them. If you receive and e-mail requesting your private data, simply call to follow up.

If the e-mail contains a link, don't click, no matter how tempted you are. Armstrong suggests, "the safest thing you can do to find out what the site is, is get out of the e-mail and type the URL for the link to into your Web browser separately.

Talkback: Did you use Wi-Fi access from your home? To top of page

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