Does your family have a home page on the Internet? If so, you might want to reconsider how much personal information you post online. Con artists who steal others' identities, get credit in their names, then leave innocent people with a mountain of debt to fight and ruined credit to clean up are discovering the charms of the Net.
Old-fashioned techniques like wading through Dumpsters for discarded credit-card receipts take time. These days, a savvy thief can hack into an Internet service provider's subscriber list and lift credit-card numbers by the thousands. Databases full of sensitive information have been inadvertently left open in cyberspace. And some online outfits peddle sensitive information without regard to privacy, despite Federal Trade Commission scrutiny last year that encouraged many to limit how they sell services like looking up Social Security numbers.
Meanwhile, thousands of netizens are unknowingly making it easier for thieves to steal their identities by posting individual home pages, family genealogies, and resumes. Sure, there's no harm in posting photographs of Morris or Fido. And only the foolish post a Social Security number on a Web site. But many pages are packed with the sort of details identity thieves crave: full names, birth dates, birthplaces, addresses, occupations, degrees, phone numbers. With the click of a mouse, a thief has a personal dossier at his fingertips.
Think about it. A name, birth date, and birthplace will get you a birth certificate, and a driver's license is not far behind. "The driver's license, unfortunately, has become a de facto ID," says Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego. It's the key to all sorts of financial services, and it propels a thief closer to the magic number: the Social Security number.
Mom's maiden name. Some family tree tracers place details like a mother's maiden name online. That's often a common password for credit cards and bank accounts. Revealing such personal details, says Ed Howard, executive director of the Center for Law in the Public Interest in Los Angeles, is "privacy suicide."
As Howard points out, the Internet isn't a toy. Your home page may have hooked you up with a long-lost friend or relative, but it can also put you at risk. Identity-theft victims suffer the aftermath of the criminal's spending sprees for years in the form of calls from collection agencies, ruined credit, even mistaken arrest.
While the Internet is a wonderful tool for genealogists (it has revolutionized family research), think again before jeopardizing the privacy of your relatives by putting intimate details up on the Web. "If a family member is going to put up the genealogy, I think they should notify all the living members of that family tree," says Givens--who would prefer her family tree in book form.
You'll never have complete control over your personal information, so you'll never be immune to fraud. But why make it easy for someone to impersonate you? If you wouldn't post your background on your local grocery store's bulletin board, don't put it on the Internet. "It's the world's bulletin board," says Carole Lane, author of Naked in Cyberspace: How to Find Personal Information Online (Pemberton Press, 1997, $29.95). And con artists are checking it out.
This story appears in the May 11, 1998 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.