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Identity Theft and Spyware- The New Threat

Spyware vs. Adware- Know the Difference

It is also very important to understand the difference between spyware and adware (a.k.a. pestware). There has been a large outcry from consumers and privacy advocates over intrusive software and cookies that are in reality more of a nuisance than a security threat. This does not mean that adware is not a problem, but cookies and adware should not be treated on the same level as spyware. They are fundamentally different situations altogether and lumping them together dilutes the threat of real spyware.

Adware generally refers to software that installs a reminder service or spawns targeted ads as you surf. These advertisements are referred to in the advertising industry as interstitials or simply “pop-ups”. They might also profile your surfing habits, shopping habits and most gather information in aggregate.

In a recent decision in the case of U-Haul versus WhenU a judge determined that the use of adware was “legal”. In short it meant that WhenU was not violating trademarks by having their bundled software, SaveNow, display pop-up advertisements.

We do believe that more legal precedents will be handed down and legislation will be enacted to control the use of adware that uses drive-by downloads and deceptive installation techniques, but until that time comes we urge users to read the End User License Agreement for any software before they install it and to educate themselves on the use of adware.

Spyware, as we know it, is software used to monitor actual computer activity. As we mentioned before it can log your keystrokes which means whatever you do on your computer is open to the eyes of prying spies. This problem is greatly exacerbated in environments where different users have access to a single machine. For example, a local copy shop, a computer rental kiosk, a university or even a friend’s home machine. These are typical targets for a thief who wants to quickly grab information from unsuspecting users.

Public Terminals and Spyware

One particular case stands out as a red flag for using public terminals. For over a year, unknown to people who used Internet terminals at Kinko's stores in a New York store, Juju Jiang was logging everything users typed including their passwords to financial institutions. Jiang had covertly installed, in at least a dozen Kinko's stores, spyware that logged keystrokes. He captured more than four hundred user names and passwords, using them to access and even open bank accounts online. This is a real world example underscoring the dangers of how spyware can be used to steal someone’s identity. It is logical to conclude that more of this type of ID theft will occur because it is relatively easy to execute.

A thief doesn’t even have to be technically skilled to install a commercial keylogger and to retrieve your personal information. Once installation is deployed the thief can have information e-mailed back to them or the software will open up a “backdoor” where the spy can log into the machine and retrieve keystroke or snapshot logs. Consumers must exercise even more caution when using public computer systems and realize that in open computing environments there are situations that can leave them vulnerable.

Monitor Your Credit

It is absolutely critical that you monitor your credit report on a regular basis. If you find a change of address you did not initiate or financial accounts you did not apply for request a copy of your personal credit report. The credit report will include contact information for requesting an investigation of incorrect information. It's also important to watch your monthly billing statements for errors or unusual activity. In Kim Smith’s case using a credit monitoring service would have alerted her to far in advance to the activities of the thief and saved her some embarrassment at closing time. After applying for a loan, credit card, rental or anything else that requires a credit report, request that your Social Security number on the application be truncated (x’ing out key numbers) or completely deleted and your original credit report be shredded before your eyes or returned to you after a decision has been made. A lender needs to retain only your name and credit score to justify a decision. It is worthy to note that in the FTC study on identity theft fifty-two percent of all ID theft victims, approximately 5 million people, discovered that they were victims of identity theft by monitoring their accounts.

You can request credit reports at the sites below:

Periodically Request Your Social Security Statement

Along with checking out credit reports U.S. consumers should request their Social Security Earnings and Benefit Statement at least once a year to make sure there is no sign of fraud. You can do this online by surfing to here. The statement will come via snail mail and is not sent online. If you aren’t comfortable doing it online you can use Form SSA-7004 located here.

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