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Smartphones, social networks to blame for rise in identity theft

Smartphones, social networks to blame for rise in identity theft

Posting in Technology

Willingness to share personal information on social networks and carelessness with smartphone access controls helped contribute to a 13 percent rise in identity theft in 2011.

Two weeks ago, when my accountant tried to file my family's federal income tax electronically, we all got a very unpleasant surprise: Someone had already used my social security number to file. Either someone somewhere along the line made a big mistake or some jerk is trying to claim a refund using my identity. Either way, I'm in for months of annoyance with the Internal Revenue Service and paranoia. Oh joy!

It turns out identity theft is on the rise, according to new research from Javelin Strategy, which follows such things. The firm reports that the practice rose at least 13 percent last year, with more than 11.6 million adults finding themselves in a not-so-fun situation. I'm not really surprised, given the data breaches of the past 12 months. I'll bet many of you reading this post have been alerted by a big financial services company that your personal information might have been compromised. Javelin has been following these trends for the past nine years, tracking more than 42,951 respondents over that timeframe.

The one consolation, I suppose, is that ID thieves are getting away with less, thanks to some of the safeguards that people are putting in place beforehand. Fraud alerts are helping catch many of these problems before they spiral out of control (although there is no way to find out if you are a victim of tax fraud until you are thwarted from filing your own return, as I have discovered). Actually, 43 percent of the ID theft incidents in 2011 were first discovered by the victims of that theft, according to the Javelin research.

Still, if you are a smartphone user, Javelin reports that you are more susceptible than the general population to an identity theft incident, where a credit card number, debit card number or your social security number is compromised. About 7 percent of all smartphone users are ID theft victims, which was about a one-third higher incidence rate than everyone else. Much of this is directly tied to lost devices ("How losing a smartphone means losing your privacy").

Another big culprit is the extent to which a person lives in social networks or other social media, Javelin reports. Here's something simple that I bet you never thought about: sharing your birthday. Up to 45 percent of us share the whole thing: month, date and year. That's exactly the sort of information identity thieves love to have when collecting personal information.

Do yourself a favor. I'm not advocating that you shut yourself out of social networks or ditch your smartphone, but spend some time thinking about why you are disclosing certain pieces of information. Are you sharing because you can or because you should?

(Image by Armin Hanisch, courtesy of Stock.xchng)

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Heather Clancy

Section Editor

Heather Clancy has written for United Press International, ZDNet, Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She holds a degree from McGill University. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure