Most people understand the concept of identity theft. However, its various incarnations and the myriad ways it can come about are less-widely understood. News sources report about “smishing” and “malware” and other odd-sounding terms in a manner that assumes these words are part of everyday vocabulary.
Identity theft – one of the nation’s most lucrative and fastest growing crimes – is something that every individual needs to understand. Towards that end, we asked our friends at the Identity Theft Resource Center to compile a list of basic identity theft terms that every consumer should know.
- Anti-virus: Software that can be installed on a computer to protect it against malware. Anti-virus software must be updated continuously in order to work properly.
- Bot: This term is short for robot. In the land of identity theft, a bot is a computer program that performs automated tasks. It can be used to scan for passwords, search one’s browsing history, capture keystrokes (and therefore capture passwords), relay this personal information to third parties over the Internet, and send spam from the host computer.
- Credit Freeze: A credit freeze locks the data at the credit reporting agencies (CRAs) thus preventing new creditors (banks, credit card companies, other lenders) from viewing a credit report or score. It makes opening a line of credit more difficult, as the individual must give permission for the release of the data. Credit freezes should be requested sparingly, by those who credit accounts are proven to have been compromised.
- Data Breach: A data breach is the unintentional release of information. Breaches can be unintentional and happen when an employee loses a thumb drive containing sensitive information. Intentional breaches, where hackers aim to break into company databases and obtain sensitive information – usernames, passwords, credit card information, etc. – are increasingly common.
- Fraud Alert: This is a notice placed in your credit file asking creditors to verify your identity prior to issuing credit. A fraud alert can be established by contacting the credit reporting agencies (CRAs). Consumers who believe their personally identifying information (SSN, DOB, etc.) has been compromised may elect to place a fraud alert on their credit files.
- Malware: This term is short for malicious software – software that has been designed to wreck havoc. Types of malware include viruses, worms, spyware, and trojans. The different types vary in how they are transmitted between devices, attack the host software, and capture and spread information.
- Phishing: A scam to steal valuable information such as credit card and social security numbers, user IDs, and passwords. In phishing scams, consumers receive an official-looking e-mail pretending to be from their bank, retail establishment, or other service provider that implies a need to access their account to update their information. The email will include a false link to the company’s website, tricking the consumer into inputting their login information. Spear phishing is a derivative of this technique which is more targeted and personal to the consumer.
- Public Wi-fi: Wi-fi is a popular technology that allows an electronic device to exchange data wirelessly over a computer network. Wi-fi is the preferred method of Internet access at public hotspots such as coffee shops or libraries. Not all wi-fi networks are created equal in terms of security, and users are advised to not transmit sensitive information such as credit card numbers and banking logins when using public wi-fi.
- Smishing: The mobile version of phishing. Instead of being directed by e-mail to a website, a text message (SMS message) is sent to a consumer’s phone containing a link. Clicking on the link causes malware to be installed in the phone.
- Spyware: Software that is installed in a computer without the user’s knowledge and collects and transmits information about the user’s computer activities. This can include the ability to collect login and password information.
The frustrating thing about identity theft-related terminology is that as quickly as technology develops – these days it seems to be at the speed of light – thieves find new ways to exploit consumers. Right along with the evolution of criminal techniques come new terms, and variations on existing ones. For right now, with this list of definitions, you are well on your way to identity theft literacy. So, the next time you want to impress your friends with some techie know-how, inform them about the latest data breach or caution them to not fall prey to phishing or smishing.