Web identity unsafe

Always use a credit card, not a debit card, when making purchases on the Internet.

by Conrad Wilson

Mark Aronson didn’t buy Internet porn or withdraw hundreds of dollars from his Wells Fargo account, but his bank statements said otherwise.

Aronson, like many students, was a victim of identity theft, a popular crime in which personal information is stolen or provided through deceptive methods called phishing scams.

Prior to the thefts, Aronson, a journalism senior, made multiple purchases on the Internet every month. He primarily used PayPal, an online purchasing tool, for eBay purchases.

“I was getting cheap stuff online for cheaper,” he said.

A survey conducted by The Minnesota Daily found that 80 percent of students are concerned someone could steal their identity using information found on the Internet.

Identity theft often occurs among University students, said Carol Jacobsen, a paralegal with Student Legal Services who specializes in the crime.

The most common way of stealing information is backpack and purse stealing, she said. Contacting people via e-mail – phishing – is the next most common.

Phishing “is a good way to gain information,” Jacobsen said. “The thieves work in the privacy of their own dwelling; they don’t have to leave home to do that kind of identity theft. That’s the scariest thing about it.”

Information can also be stolen through poorly managed personal documents, Jacobsen said.

The survey also found that 55 percent of students trust online companies and organizations to keep information about them private. At the same time, only 22 percent said they feel safe making purchases online.

The numbers are consistent with other research conducted throughout the country, said John Riedl, a computer science professor.

“Your safety in an Internet purchase is exactly proportional to your ability to rely on the person you’re buying from,” he said. “If you can’t rely on that person, all the sudden you give them a credit card and they can do mean things to you.”

Always use a credit card versus a debit card when making online purchases, Jacobsen said.

Depending on the agreement, credit card companies can reverse charges without the permission of the merchant. Customers also have 30 to 60 days to dispute purchases and are only responsible for the first $50 of fraudulent purchases.

About the survey

The Internet Use and Privacy Attitudes Survey was conducted from November 15 to November 22, 2006. 378 students responded to the survey for a response rate of 18.90 percent. The margin of error for this sample is plus or minus 4.54 percent with a 95 percent confidence level. Additional information, including a description of the survey methodology and data results is available online at www.mndaily.com/survey/survey.php. Questions about the survey can be directed to Dana Adams at The Minnesota Daily Survey Research Department: E-mail: [email protected]; Call: (612) 627-4080 ext. 3846.

But with a debit card purchase, the money is gone immediately and much more difficult to refund, Jacobsen said.

Aronson, who used his check card, said his bank returned all his funds.

Wells Fargo “eventually credited it back after three weeks of having to call them and having to fill out this paper work,” he said. “I was on the phone for hours, at times, with people.”

A lot of students leave all of their money in their debit card accounts, Jacobsen said.

It is better, she said, to keep a small amount of funds in a checking account, replenishing it as needed from a savings account that can’t be accessed with a debit card.

The University also monitors for identity theft, said Steve Cawley, University vice president and chief information officer.

The University filters e-mails and blocks a large number of phishing scams, he said. Unfortunately, some still get through, he said.

The University also provides software that protects against key loggers, a virus that often comes in e-mails and records every key stroke made on a given computer. Key loggers are used to obtain passwords and other private information.

Cawley said he hopes to improve education about Internet scams since many students aren’t aware of the dangers associated with identity theft.

“It’s really hard for the average consumer to control the information that’s out there,” Jacobsen said. Students should not trust that every company is responsible with personal information, she said.

Students should act immediately if they believe their personal information has been stolen.

“So much can be done if they act immediately,” Jacobsen said.

After Aronson’s fiasco, he hasn’t had any problems.

“I attribute it to not going online,” he said. “Since I’ve avoided (online purchases), I haven’t had any issues.

“I just won’t buy anything on the Internet anymore; I’m so gun shy.”