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Guarding Your Money and Identity: Part One

ED GORDON, host:

NPR's Farai Chideya is in the studio with me today. She's been talking about online security and identity theft with our tech guru, Mario Armstrong.

So, Farai, what's the latest?

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

You know, millions of people have been compromised. Their identities have been stolen by online thieves who pretend to be them and charge up their credit cards, and Mario led us through a conversation saying exactly what identity theft is.

GORDON: So, Farai, let me ask you something. It seems like I've been hearing about this for some time, but it also seems the problem's getting worse. Is it?

CHIDEYA: It absolutely is, and I think that one of the reasons is that a lot of private companies now are able to put your information out there online even without you using your credit card. For example, there's a company called ZabaSearch, and basically if you go there, you will find a lot of your own previous addresses, and some people who are scam artists could use that information to their own good. So I asked Mario how much information about a typical person can you find online?

MARIO ARMSTRONG (Tech Guru): Not only can they find out information about where you live, a satellite image, possibly, to your actual location of your address or on record, or several other addresses that you may have been at over the past several years. They can also do background checks on that particular individual. So your personal info has become much more available to people, even if you do not shop or do online transactions in cyberspace.

CHIDEYA: Now what about online banking and transactions? What sorts of things should you do to be safe about those transactions?

ARMSTRONG: The banks are playing a major role in this because they're saying identify theft, online specifically, is costing banks $1 billion per year. So they are trying to make the public more aware of how they need to be safe, and there's some clear things that have worked well, like using one credit card for online transactions, and simple tips, Farai, like not using your debit card. That is the number-one tip.

CHIDEYA: Talking further about this whole idea of buying things online, how do you decide what Web sites are reputable? How do you decide if a merchant is really on the up and up, or if somebody's a scam artist?

ARMSTRONG: You have to look for a few basic things. Number one, is the site a retailer in the offline world? Is there a physical presence for that site offline? That's one thing you can do. Number two, you can look for specific things like a contact number. Is there a phone number to call, or is there simply a virtual shop online in cyberspace? And then when you're actually shopping, you need to look for clues like the padlock in the bottom left-hand or right-hand corner of your browser screen. Only when you're on the shopping page, or more specifically, where it says `http,' you know, right before you type the www, look for the letter S. That means the transaction is, in theory, secure.

CHIDEYA: So when you say, `https,' when should you look for that kind of information on your Web browser?

ARMSTRONG: It starts out with http, w-w-w-dot whatever Web site you're on dot-com. As you progress through the shopping on that Web site and you get to the actual payment page, the page where you have to plug in your credit card and other personal information for the specific transaction, that page, right before you click `submit,' should have `https,' S standing for secure.

CHIDEYA: And what about people e-mailing and saying, `Your bank account has been adjusted. You need to e-mail us with your Social Security number'? When do you decide when someone is e-mailing you and saying, `I need this, that and the other from you,' when is it legitimate and when is it fake?

ARMSTRONG: One of the easiest ways that you can check is go into your e-mail system and there is a option that you can go into--doesn't matter what e-mail service you use--and ask to display headers. You want to reveal the actual `from' address, not where they're saying it's coming from. Where is this e-mail actually originating from? That is one of the scam busters and easiest things that consumers can do to prevent themselves...

CHIDEYA: Well, those are all words to the wise, and we are going to continue this conversation. So thanks for all that, Mario.

ARMSTRONG: Thank you, Farai.

GORDON: All right, Farai. Here you go. Here's the $64,000 question: Have you ever been hit?

CHIDEYA: I certainly have. I actually had an incident a couple of years ago. Basically, someone had gotten my debit card information, and they kept charging up $70 increments until they drained my entire bank account. Now here's the twist on it. When I went to the bank, they froze my account, so I had no money whatsoever, and I learned a valuable lesson there. If you are going to make online purchases, only use a credit card. Never use your debit card, because if a credit card is charged, they will look to get their money back. If you use your debit card, it's your money, and that's going to be frozen until the issue is resolved. So never use your debit card for online purchases.

And let me just tell you that tomorrow, we're going to continue our conversation with Mario by talking about what do to if your identity, like mine, has been stolen or compromised.

GORDON: All right, Farai.

And we should note that Mario Armstrong covers technology for Baltimore-area NPR member stations WEAA and WYPR. He spoke with, of course, our correspondent, Farai Chideya.

Farai, thanks.

CHIDEYA: Thanks, Ed. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Farai Chideya
Farai Chideya is a multimedia journalist who has worked in print, television, online, and radio. Prior to joining NPR's News & Notes, Chideya hosted Your Call, a daily news and cultural call-in show on San Francisco's KALW 91.7 FM. Chideya has also been a correspondent for ABC News, anchored the prime time program Pure Oxygen on the Oxygen women's channel, and contributed commentaries to CNN, Fox, MSNBC, and BET. She got her start as a researcher and reporter at Newsweek magazine. In 1997 Newsweek named her to its "Century Club" of 100 people to watch.