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updated 3/14/2011 2:14:10 PM ET 2011-03-14T18:14:10

It may be easier to steal someone’s identity than it is to rob a bank.

Of course, once your identity is stolen, the thief may go on to rob a bank – specifically, from your bank account.

So says Linda Foley, founder of the San Diego-based Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC), a non-profit organization that provides education on identity theft and assists identity-theft victims.

Unfortunately, too many people remain skeptical about the dangers of identity theft, Foley says. Consumers think it will never happen to them, and many businesses provide minimal security until there’s a breach of customer data.

Such attitudes give thieves an opening.

“They are looking for our weaknesses,” said Foley. “They take advantage of our apathy.”

One of those weaknesses, Foley said, is lack of knowledge about how identity thieves gather information on their victims. That’s why the ITRC developed a list of identity-theft predictions for 2011.

“We looked at the broad picture of what’s happening in identity theft,” Foley explained, “and wanted to help people understand the variety and complexity of tactics thieves use.”

According to a recent ITRC report, the following methods of identity theft will be prevalent in 2011:

Phony checks: Check fraud based on “synthesized” checks may grow if the economy fails to improve. These specially forged checks bear the name and address of a real person or company but have fake account and routing numbers. Merchants will often accept these checks. The solution may be a system to verify checks in real time, as is done with payment cards.

Account takeover: Small and medium-size organizations, such as businesses, schools and governments, will be prime targets for criminals because of their deep pockets and often less-than-perfect security. A recent fraud advisory issued by the FBI and Secret Service showed how cyberattackers could take over a company’s bank accounts and empty them in minutes. And don’t discount the possibility of an inside job – criminals sometimes recruit company staffers to get around security features.

Social engineering scams: Sophisticated attempts to obtain money from people via “social engineering” – in other words, deception -- will increase.

The point of social engineering is to manipulate people into a certain action, often through a feeling of community and exchange of information – such as through the third-party games and applications found on Facebook.

“Scams will become more prevalent on social-networking sites, smartphones and other mobile devices,” said Foley.

In one recent worldwide crackdown, 532 were arrested for connections to fraudulent schemes that victimized more than 120,000 U.S. residents and resulted in losses estimated at more than $10.4 billion. Ponzi schemes and other investment scams made up most of those cases.

Cybertheft: Even as defenses against cybercrime and hacking improve, the criminals get better. There will be more hacking into retails networks between cash registers and network servers, and more skimming of payment cards at points of sale and automated teller machines.

“Criminals are now using cryptographic technology to protect the card information they steal,” Jeremy King of the PCI Security Standards Council, which governs payment cards worldwide, said in a recent interview. “That’s posing challenges for detection and law enforcement.”

The ITRC also predicted that criminal gangs will only get better at collecting and making money from other people’s personal information. Identity thieves are often with groups involved in trafficking of drugs and stolen goods as well as counterfeiting of all kinds.

“We can no longer think of identity theft as a lone person stealing a credit-card number,” said Foley.

Finally, Foley warns that low-tech, old-fashioned methods of identity theft such as mail theft and stolen wallets and purses should not be discounted. U.S. postal inspectors break more identity-theft cases than any other single law-enforcement group, she pointed out.

While it is impossible to completely theft-proof your identity, a few simple steps will add some layers of protection:

1. Never click on e-mail links without verification. Phishing e-mail remains one of the top methods of identity theft.

2. Conduct financial transactions only on secure websites. (The URL will begin with “https,” and a padlock icon will appear, or the URL bar will turn a different color.)

3. Limit the amount of personal information you reveal online, particularly on social-media sites.

4. Speaking of social media, “friend” only people you actually know.

5. Shred, burn or rip to pieces any documents that contain financial or personal information. Don’t just toss them in the garbage or recycling bin.

Foley has one more piece of advice for protecting yourself.

“Take off the rose-colored glasses,” she said. “Don’t just hand out information about yourself – ask why they need personal details. Always recognize that there are thieves out there, ready to pounce, any time you let your guard down.”

 

 

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