THE BLOG

Identity Theft: Common Consumer Errors

07/16/2010 11:40 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The major problem that consumers face today is a fundamental lack of understanding of what identity theft actually is. Most people think of identity theft as when someone uses your credit card without your permission. Fraudulent credit card use is certainly a multi billion dollar problem, but it's only one small part of the identity theft threat. A comprehensive understanding of what identity theft and what it is not empowers citizens to make informed decisions about how they should protect themselves.

People who have been victimized by identity theft often have a difficult time functioning as a result of their circumstance. Some deal with minor administrative annoyances whiles others suffer financial devastation and legal nightmares.

No one is immune to identity theft:

A woman contacted me who was previously a very successful real estate agent and the president of her local real estate group. She had climbed the ranks from sales to broker/owner and oversaw dozens of employees. A former boyfriend stole her Social Security number and his new girlfriend used it to assume her identity. Over the course of five years the ex-boyfriend and his new girlfriend traveled the world on stolen credit and destroyed the real estate agent's ability to buy and sell property. Her real estate license was suspended and her life was turned upside down.

Awareness is key:

Do you carry your Social Security number or a Social Security card in your wallet? Do you provide this number to anyone who asks for it? The most commonly dispensed advice in response to these questions is: don't carry the card and don't give out the number. But in reality, there are many times when you have to use your Social Security number. Because this number is our primary identifier, we have to put it at risk constantly. Refusing to disclose your Social Security number under any circumstances is like refusing to eat because the food might be bad for you. There are always risks. The key is managing those risks and making smarter decisions.

Do you know what ATM skimming is? Have you seen a skimmer? Have you been phished? Would you know what a fraudulent auction looks like? Do you put your name on a "stop delivery list" when you travel? Do you know how to update the critical security patches in your computer's operating system? Do you know if the doctor's office your child just went to has done background checks on all the employees who handled your and your child's Social Security number? Most people struggle to answer questions like these.

We live in a technologically dependant time and we rely on all these tools and modes of communication, and most people do not understand the risks. The good news is, I do. And McAfee does. And what we do is keep you informed of your options, so that you know how to protect yourself and your family.

The most important thing you can do right now is not worry about this stuff. But you do need to take some time to educate yourself.

Download McAfee's eGuide,"What You Need to Know to Avoid Identity Theft."

Take five minutes to assess your risk of identity theft. Fill out the Identity Theft Risk Assessment Tool to get your "risk profile."