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Identity thieves' latest scams

By Jason Alderman

If the financial consequences weren't so damaging, you might almost find humor in how identity theft has butchered the English language in recent years. "Phishing," "pharming" and "vishing" are just a few ways criminals access personal information they'll use to open illicit accounts, rent apartments, or even charge medical procedures to someone's insurance plan.

Unfortunately, every time authorities plug one hole, crafty criminals figure out new ways to trick unsuspecting victims. Some now even steal children's Social Security numbers, ruining their credit long before they've opened a single account.

To protect yourself and your family, beware of these scams:

Phishing: Where you receive an email, purportedly from a trusted source like a government agency or your bank, asking you to supply or confirm account information, log-in IDs or passwords. Legitimate outfits never ask you to verify sensitive information by email (or over the phone). When in doubt, contact the organization yourself. And never click on the link provided within the email – it could take you to a copycat website capable of infecting your computer.

Smishing (for "Short Message Service"): Like phishing, only it uses text messages sent to your cell phone.

Vishing (voice phishing): An automated voice message that directs you to call your bank or credit card issuer. Under the pretext of clearing up a problem (like theft), you'll be asked to share personal or account information. Keep a list of company toll-free numbers handy so you can call them directly without fearing you've been given bogus information. I also program my banks' and credit card issuers' phone numbers – but not account numbers – into my cell phone in case I'm traveling.

Pharming. Where hackers redirect you from a legitimate website to an impostor site to harvest (farm) personal data you've been asked to provide. Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter increasingly are being targeted.

Skimming: Where crooks use an altered ATM slot and cameras to record account information; also, when dishonest store or restaurant employees use a portable card reader to skim credit or debit card information.

Spyware: Illicit software you unknowingly download when you open an email attachment, click on a pop-up window or download a corrupted song or game. The spyware can then record your keystrokes to obtain account information or ferret out confidential information on your computer.

Don't forget good-old-fashioned pickpocketing, mail theft and rooting through your trash.

To reduce your risk of identity theft, always:

  • Shield keypads from the eyes of "shoulder surfers" at stores and ATMs.
  • Shred paperwork and receipts containing personal or account information.
  • Lock up your Social Security card and unneeded credit cards.
  • Carefully scan monthly credit card and bank statements for erroneous charges.
  • Monitor your credit reports for errors or fraudulent activity. You can order one free report per year from the three major credit bureaus at
  • Refrain from making online purchases from unfamiliar websites; and look for "https" in the address.

These are only a few of the precautions you should routinely take to protect your personal information. For more tips, visit Practical Money Skills for Life, Visa Inc.'s free personal financial management program (

This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a tax or financial advisor for specific information on how tax laws apply to your situation and about your individual financial situation.

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