“Identity Thief,” the new Jason Bateman-Melissa McCarthy screwball comedy, resonates because it seems everybody knows somebody affected by identity theft. Earlier this semester, I had to cancel my debit card because of an apparent identity theft scam. I know countless others who have gone through the same thing.
The Federal Trade Commission estimates that 9 million people have their identities stolen every year, and recent research shows that there are about 10,000 identity theft rings in the U.S.
Yes, identity theft can even happen here in idyllic Happy Valley.
Earlier this month, a computer was infected with malware at Penn State Harrisburg that contained 808 Social Security numbers.
When Penn State became aware of the computer’s vulnerability to malware, short for “malicious software,” it was immediately taken offline, but the university had to notify all those who might be impacted to prepare for possible identity theft.
Kathy Kimball, Penn State’s senior director of Security Operations and Services, said that it’s impossible to stay completely safe on the Internet despite available safeguards.
“Computers and applications are designed by people and their protections can be defeated by people,” she said in an interview. “Users can only be safer by remaining careful and vigilant.”
Kimball outlined various tips for students to keep their personal information as secure as possible.
Don’t fall for phishing scams
Phishing messages often look legitimate, asking to verify a password, mother’s maiden name or another item on behalf of Penn State.
But, Kimball said this is the single biggest mistake she sees students make because the university will never solicit information this way.
Such messages can also include links that, if clicked, will download malware to the user’s computer.
If an email looks “phishy,” do not click on any links and simply delete the message.
Don’t store encrypted sensitive info
This tip may seem intuitive but maybe it would be safer to write your Social Security Number on a piece of paper somewhere. It may seem obvious, but it is extremely important to take note of.
There can be weaknesses in antivirus software for which no update, or patch, yet exists.There have been a number of these “zero day” vulnerabilities in recent months, Kimball said.
“Antivirus [software] is still recommended as part of a defense-in-depth strategy, but, again, nothing’s perfect in the online security space and it is not a totally effective solution,” she said.
Download free antivirus software
Students don’t have to pay top-dollar for antivirus protection. In fact, they don’t have to pay anything. The university offers free antivirus software for students at downloads.its.psu.edu.
Students also lucky enough to have access to the home edition of Identity Finder, software meant to locate, protect and, in some cases, remove sensitive personal information on computers. Faculty and staff members have to pay to use the same program.
The portal where students can download the home version is available here: identityfinder.com/store/customer.pl?accountid=62582.
Limit web surfing to well-known sites
These sites generally have the least likelihood of being infected by malware.
A high percentage of malware comes from perfectly legitimate websites that are unknowingly compromised, Kimball said, so that’s where preventative software comes in handy.
Kimball also provided other helpful tips for best computer safety, such as ensure that your operating system and applications are up-to-date on vendor-recommended software versions and patches, activate a personal firewall. She also advised to use software only from known and reliable sites and not to click on spurious pop-ups.
Mike Hricik is a senior majoring in journalism and is The Daily Collegian’s Monday columnist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.