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Your Privacy Online

Mark Edwards

I recently read the book "Catch me if you can" about the life of Frank Abignale Jr, who passed millions of dollars in counterfeit cheques in the late 1960's by assuming false identities. For those of you who do not know the story, Frank Abignale Jr is now a world renowned expert and consultant in document security, providing advice to many of the world's largest companies. The end of the book included an interview with Frank in which he was asked how easy it would be to duplicate what he did around 40 years ago today.

His response was that he thought it was at least a hundred times easier today thanks to the Internet. The faceless nature of electronic transactions means that identity theft is a very easy way to commit fraud and theft.

When an expert of this stature speaks, I try to take heed of their advice. Here is a list of rules I use to protect my own electronic identity. To protect yourself against identity theft you need to train yourself in safe ways to conduct yourself online. The techniques for protecting your identity I am about to share with you should become as habitual as looking both left and right before crossing the road.

1. Protecting your personal information is your responsibility. Take this responsibility seriously. Think before before you type anything online. Whether answering an email or completing a form, think about the security implications of what you are about to do rather than blithely risking your security then looking for someone else to blame when things go badly later.

2. Only do business with reputable companies and web sites.

3. Never volunteer information simply because it is asked. I make a habit of never filling in optional fields in online forms.

4. If you must answer questions, and your answers are not legally required to be valid, consider using false information. The most common example of this I see is sites that ask for your birthday. Your birthday is a common means of validating your identity and is not information you should volunteer lightly.

5. Use disposable email accounts (like hotmail and yahoo mail) for all web forms to control unwanted email.

6. Do not follow web links in emails sent by questionable sources. I wrote about this in my recent article about Phishing.

7. Do not enter online contests. Online contests are run for one reason only; to collect personal information to sell or use for marketing purposes.

8. Clear out tracking data on your PC. You can do this by clearing cookies or more specifically, the cookies placed by advertising sites on your machine.

9. Regularly scan your computer for spyware. These programs report back on your surfing habits and sometimes even hard drive contents to a central registry to match with your personal information.

10. Use a comprehensive privacy system to protect your personal information from being harvested by the sites you visit. Software firewalls are a good way of ensuring that your computer is not volunteering personal information to sites you do not wish to.

Following these rules is not a guarantee that your privacy will be compromised however it will certainly reduce your risk.

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