Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors | Last reviewed June 20, 2016
The Internet has become a powerful social and economic force which has, in turn, spawned its own branch of law. Shopping online allows consumers an unprecedented opportunity to compare prices and reviews for every product, but it also makes it more difficult for shoppers to spot a scammer. Internet users often share highly personal information, such as identification numbers, credit card or bank account numbers, images of themselves and their family, and contact information. This section contains articles that will help you decide when it is and is not safe to give out personal information online, as well as the steps you can take to avoid online scammers.
Identity theft is a crime where a thief uses an individual's personal information to commit fraud and theft against them. Although identity thieves may strike through the internet they can also obtain sensitive personal information from trash cans and other unsecured locations. Using this information, whatever its source, thieves can then access your bank account, medical records, personal emails, and other kinds of data.
You can prevent identity theft by protecting your personal records, keeping a close eye on personal belongings, limiting the personal information you carry around, keeping your Social Security Number secure, protecting your computer's data, using effective passwords, and refusing to give personal information over the phone.
If you learn that your identity has been stolen you should immediately close any effected accounts and speak to the company's fraud division. Follow up with a written letter that includes copies of any documents that support your claim. Keep copies for yourself. Also call one of the credit bureaus to place a fraud alert on your affected accounts. You can also file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). They are frequently more responsive than local police.
Many online scammers contact their victims by email. Two common con-artist methods employing email are called "phishing" and "spoofing." Email phishing is when the fraudster impersonates a business or other entity for the purpose of tricking the recipient of the email into giving up their personal information. Spoofing makes the header of an email appear to come from someplace other than the true source. Using this trick the criminal then tries to get personal information or convince the reader to follow a link that puts malicious software on their computer.
These forms of digital fraud can be difficult to identify, but the FTC and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) offer the following advice: don't respond to emails asking for personal or financial information, update your security software frequently, monitor your accounts for unusual transactions, and exercise caution when verifying the identity of businesses and companies online.
Another common kind of fraud involves online auctions. You can protect yourself from fraud in this context by using some good sense, comparing prices, checking seller feedback, insisting on safe shipping methods and shipping insurance, and by using an escrow service for a high value item. If you become a victim of fraud you should report it. The FBI has an online division that investigates complaints and the FTC and National Fraud Information Center both maintain websites that permit fraud reporting.
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