A new Web site offers to help you find out if your Social Security or credit-card number has been stolen and is being used online. There’s only one catch.
StolenID Search was set up recently by TrustedID "to give people a chance to understand if their personal information is safe," the site explains. "With data being lost everywhere around us, we all need a free consumer-empowering watchdog service to see if the bad guys have our information." Then comes the clincher: "Enter your social security or credit card number in the box," and press the search button. So to see if your personal info is out there in cyberspace, you have to, well, send it out there in cyberspace. TrustedID says not to worry: It doesn’t save your info, the search is anonymous and secure, and your number has little value with no other data attached. And, hey, it says, if you like this free service, it has even better ID-theft services for $8 a month. CNET News (news.com.com) offers a good overview (see it at www.startribune.com/a2452) pointing out the advantages and pitfalls of StolenID Search. On one hand, the site can be a boon to consumers, its experts say. On the other hand, they point out, the site’s database could actually be used to aid criminal activity. Read through StolenID Search’s material, the CNET article and other articles linked at TrustedID’s site before deciding if you feel comfortable seeing if your vital numbers have been compromised online.
Considering the stunt documented by Rob Cockerham at his humor site Cockeyed.com, it’s no wonder that people get nervous about their credit cards and identity theft. He took a credit-card solicitation he received in the mail and tore it into bits. He then taped it back together, wrote in a new address (his parents’), added a cell-phone number and sent it in. In a few weeks, he received the credit card at the altered address and activated it using his cell phone. A criminal should have it so easy. "You should probably buy a shredder today," Cockerham says. His prankster pal John Hargave of Zug.com also demonstrated how insecure credit cards can be by using increasingly illegible and outlandish "signatures" on purchases (www.zug.com/pranks/credit and www.zug.com/pranks/credit_card). In the blank where you normally sign for purchases, he drew a picture of Shamu, a diagram of the human digestive tract and musical notation for a little ditty he created called "The Poo Song." All were accepted as his signature without a challenge or request for ID. Scary.
As if identity theft isn’t scary enough, there are all kinds of rumors and forwarded e-mails about things such as hotel key cards storing your personal info and Web sites and cell phones being used to steal your confidential info. The myth-busting Web site Snopes has the lowdown on which are false and which are fact, which you can access using this search-result page: www.startribune.com/a2451. And if you think you’re being clever by writing "See ID" or "Check ID" on the back of your credit card instead of signing it – as a reminder to clerks to ask for your ID to verify a signature – Alex Boese of the Museum of Hoaxes found that it doesn’t really work, after a clerk refused to accept his Visa card (www.museumofhoaxes.com/comments/creditcard.html).
There’s nothing funny about identity theft, especially for the estimated 9 million Americans who fall victim to it each year, according to the Federal Trade Commission. If you think your personal information has been stolen or want to take steps to ensure that it isn’t, check out the FTC’s Identity Theft site for everything you need to know. Then maybe you’ll have no reason to use StolenID Search.
(Randy A. Salas is a columnist for the Star Tribune. Do you have a favorite Web site or a question about how to find something on the Internet? E-mail Web email@example.com or go to his blog, www.startribune.com/Web search.)
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