Could You Be Putting Your Money at Risk Online?

by Jean Chatzky
Photograph: iStock

I blog, Facebook, Tweet and occasionally LinkIn. I shop, bank, buy groceries and book travel tickets—all online. I even fell in love with my husband online (no, we didn’t meet through a dating site, but he wrote great e-mails). Lately I’ve started to wonder: Should I be concerned that so much of my life happens on the Internet? Could my openness be putting my finances at risk?

I’m not being paranoid. As far as Web sites go, “there is no such thing as 100 percent secure,” says identity theft expert Robert Siciliano of Intelius. One basic: You should always check for https—rather than just http—in the URL whenever you’re prompted to enter sensitive information like a credit card number (that extra s indicates a secure site). But that alone won’t guarantee a safe experience, Siciliano notes. The FTC estimates nine million cases of identity theft each year—many perpetrated on the Internet. People ages 45 to 54 represent 31 percent of all identity theft victims, and women are 26 percent more likely than men to be victims. One reason? Women, who make 85 percent of all purchasing decisions, transact more online than men do.

And the problem is getting worse. “The speed of technology has outpaced the security of technology,” Siciliano says. “That’s why we’re having this conversation.” Going back to doing things the old-fashioned way is not an option for a twenty-first-century woman. Instead, just take these precautions.
 

Use anti-spyware protection

Essentially, spyware is software that installs itself on your computer without your permission. Mainstream retailers use benign versions, cookies, to learn about your online habits. Identity thieves use more menacing forms: Malware can cull your passwords, banking information and other personal or financial details. Some spyware applications (the kind private detectives use to catch cheating spouses) capture your keystrokes—which a thief can then use to figure out your passwords.

Protect yourself by keeping your computer clean. Install anti-spyware protection, anti-phishing toolbars and firewalls, says Scott Mitic, CEO of TrustedID. If you’re the DIY type, look for such free software as Ad-Aware Free or Spybot Search & Destroy (find both at download.cnet.com). Or buy a security suite like the one from Norton ($69.99), which includes both antivirus and anti-malware software. To help you choose, find reviews at consumersearch.com/anti-spyware-reviews.

And note—it’s not enough to buy the technology; you have to put it to use. According to McAfee, the antivirus software company, while 73 percent of Americans think they have a firewall installed, only 64 percent have it enabled. If you use Windows XP, check if your firewall is active by going to the start menu, then clicking “control panel” and “security center.” On a Mac, go to system preferences, click “security,” then turn the firewall on or off.
 

Secure your wireless network

Those steps will protect your computer. But you also need to safeguard your network, in order to secure the information you’re sending over the Internet. Networks have been compromised before, occasionally on a grand scale. For instance, in December 2006, hackers stole the credit card numbers of 45 million customers of T.J. Maxx and Marshalls. They did it by setting up a radio antenna in one store’s parking lot and using it to intercept data flowing between computers in the store. From there, they broke into the company’s network and wreaked havoc.

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