The Web of Identity Theft; Snatching Personal Data Easier online.(LIFE - SCIENCE &Amp; TECHNOLOGY)

Article excerpt

Byline: Christian Toto, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Anyone who enters the phrase "create an identity" into a popular Web search engine such as Google will see more than 5,000 sites pop up,says Paul Colangelo, director of Industry Affairs for the databasefirm LexisNexis. The Internet, in addition to rev-

olutionizing the way we communicate and do business, has emboldened those who traffic in identity fraud.

Identity thieves use the Web in two ways. They can go online and, through various means, acquire such sensitive material as Social Security and credit-card numbers, or they can swipe wallets or rifle through people's trash to obtain such personal data, then anonymously go shopping online using someone else's information.

Experts say people aren't defenseless against the Web's nefarious side. Software products and a healthy dollop of common sense can protect Internet users against identity fraud in the computer age.

Fred Hoch, vice president of software programs with the Software & Information Industry Association, headquartered on Vermont Avenue NW, says identity theft is growing "significantly," and that growth is fueled in part by the Internet.

"As a mass consumer product, [the Internet has] only been around for five or six years," says Mr. Hoch, whose association represents more than 800 software and information companies.

Jay Foley, director of consumer and victim services with the Identity Theft Resource Center, says that 20 years ago, crooks had to go into various banks and stores when using stolen identity information to make purchases or get a loan. They risked having clerks recognize their faces, should the authorities wise up to their plans.

Today, a thief can shop online with bank and e-commerce Web sites without fear of being identified, says Mr. Foley, whose San Diego-based group helps people nationwide in dealing with identity fraud.

Mr. Hoch says consumers should adjust their online behavior as a first step toward protecting their identities.

When shopping online, "be aware of who you're dealing with," Mr. Hoch says. Working with the site of a large, established company, such as J. Crew, offers a measure of protection. Large firms have plenty to lose if their customer service breaks down or is hacked. A tiny retail outlet that one might find while browsing the Web should be viewed with caution, he says.

Secure shopping sites can be spotted easily: Their Web addresses begin with an "s" on the "http" coding, like this: https://www.johndoecompany.com.

When a consumer enters information into a Web site, he or she should check how the company might use such material, says Mr. Colangelo, whose company includes 1,600 public databases and is being used by several law enforcement agencies to help track down identity thieves.

Many companies post their privacy policies on their sites.

A more assertive way to prevent thieves from swiping information from a computer is to install fire-wall software on the hard drive.

Fire-wall programs prevent unknown computers from making contact with your computer system. Such software is flexible, allowing users to control what kind of sites - such as an Amazon.com - can access a computer and which ones cannot.

Mr. Foley says fire-wall software programs can range in price from $29 to $100 for a basic home personal computer.

Consumers strapped for funds can download a free version of the Identity Theft Resource Center's fire-wall software program at www.zone alarm.com, Mr. Foley says.

* * *

A company in Fairfax provides consumers not just with fire-wall protection, but with a comprehensive package to help guard against every step of the identity-theft process.

PromiseMark sells a package that features fire-wall protection, credit monitoring, reimbursement insurance and assistance if one's identity is stolen. …