Mal Fletcher
ID Theft Costs Just 50p - 6 Ways To Stay Safe.

News today that criminals are buying personal identities for as little as 50 pence, should come as no great surprise. In an age where almost everything from cash to family contact is being digitised, it’s not hard to see, within the digital revolution, opportunities for scams large and small.

According to a new study on Internet security, fraudsters can now buy your credit card details, your name, address and date of birth for less than the cost of a can of coke. Data collected from over 200 countries showed 349.6 billion spam messages were sent in 2008, a 192 percent increase on the previous year.

In the midst of all this, more and more people are handing over details of their identities to criminals, via phishing websites. These are designed to mirror trustworthy web pages, and users are fooled into giving away their username, password and even bank details.

There are no guarantees of absolute security, but are there ways we can minimize the likelihood of falling victim to phishing and other forms of Internet scamming? The following will help:

Keep It Real

At a time of growing dependence on virtual reality and other web-based tools, technology trackers are noticing the growing presence of a counter-trend. There is a huge and growing need for high touch in the age of high-tech; a desire to challenge the social fragmentation that sometimes accompanies our reliance on technology.

As ingenious as ever, people are using arms-length communications technologies to set up face-to-face meetings. Many now use messaging to set up ‘spontaneous’ live events, via ‘flash mobbing’ (or ‘smart mobbing’), which draws large groups to public places for demonstrations, celebrations or activist campaigns.

In an age of cyber-this and cyber-that, it helps to consciously and deliberately seek out new opportunities to interact in face-to-face environments. We need to constantly explore new ways of maintaining a real world experience, before we get lost in a cyber world copy. Cyberspace is a nice place to visit, but you shouldn't have to live there!

Don't Digitise Emotion

In a world of instant messaging via Twitter, Facebook and a plethora of other networking platforms, it gets progressively easier to look to technology to provide our emotional diet. Some people become discouraged or depressed if they haven't received at least 10 e-mails, five Facebook messages and three tweets before nine in the morning. It is this growing emotional dependency on internet interaction that leads to what Stanford University calls ‘internet addiction’.

When a technical glitch denied service to several million Blackberry users in 2007, psychologists noted a sudden increase in the number of people complaining of symptoms including feelings of isolation and alienation. These are classic symptoms of drug withdrawal. Some people affected by the outage even reported experiencing ‘phantom vibrations’ while their Blackberries were out of order. I think the message here is not ‘you’ve got mail’, but ‘you’ve got a problem’.

We need to continue to explore ways to sustain ourselves emotionally, which are not reliant on the use of technology.

Project Ahead

Much of what we enter about ourselves online will stay there permanently. This is either because we will forget to remove it – the more we add, the harder it is to remember it all – or because the ‘digital echo’ of what we’ve written is impossible to totally expunge. Everything we enter online is stored somewhere on a hard drive and even terribly damaged drives can be restored these days. Using restoration techniques, criminologists are able to track digital impressions in e-mails, tweets and other material long since deleted.

It’s worth projecting ahead by five or 10 years. Are you entering information and material today that you wouldn't want your partner, children or even grandchildren to see later? Is there something you wouldn't want a prospective employer to discover with a quick Google search?

Remember, the very definition of privacy is changing. Privacy once meant that something was accessible only to those directly involved. Today, at best, it means that something is accessible to a limited number of people – and the limits are growing fuzzier every day.

Keep Track

It’s a good idea to keep track, at least in an informal way, of the major content you’ve entered on social networking and file-sharing sites. Remove anything you feel is no longer helpful to others or serving your best interests. Conduct an internet audit every now and then. It may sound laborious, but even a little time spent checking your various internet presences, may save you embarrassment and possible victimisation by criminal elements.

Take Control

It’s a healthy policy never to post information about yourself that the user doesn't need to know. This is something to watch for when you’re carrying out online transactions, or providing responses to surveys, government questionnaires and the like. If a merchant asks for information in a way that seems intrusive, shop elsewhere. Before you click the ‘buy now’ button, it’s worth asking: ‘If I was buying this in a bricks-and-mortar store, would I have to hand over this information?’ Most often, the answer is ‘no’.

If a government department wants information you're not comfortable relaying online, send them a letter or a paper form instead. (If they don't provide a .pdf or .doc version for download, phone and ask for one.)

Remember: It Won't Stop Here

With the passing of time, more and more of our everyday functions will carry an online element. As a result, the internet is likely to become more, not less, intrusive. We live in the age of the data explosion. Information is both power and wealth today; it is the new global currency and someone, somewhere will always be trying to control the trade in data.

Gradually, to stop the wrong people gaining control, governments will attempt to tighten regulation of the web – not so much on a national level, but trans-nationally, where there are bigger resources for policing the net.

This may be preferable to a Wild West internet, where cowboys and bandits are free to wreak havoc at will. But it’s important to remember that by their very nature governments and their bureaucracies grow. In the end, we will find it increasingly difficult to know exactly what even legitimate authorities know about us. Given the recent record of the British government when it comes to misplacing sensitive data, vigilance becomes even more essential – without the high-pitched paranoia that gives rise to endless conspiracy theories.

Despite the many benefits digital communications have brought us, and the cultural trend toward trusting these technologies implicitly, we need to treat the web with caution. In the growing interplay between man and his machines, the central question will remain: who is the servant and who is the master?

Mal Fletcher (@MalFletcher) is the founder and chairman of 2030Plus. He is a respected keynote speaker, social commentator and social futurist, author and broadcaster based in London.

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