Confronting your dark side, online-style

Time for a healthy ego check. Which of you have searched the net looking for your own name? Ego surfing used to just be for vanity but now it can have a serious bent -- you have to keep an eye on what your identity is up to.

Time for a healthy ego check.

Which of you have searched the net looking for your own name? Ego surfing used to just be for vanity but now it can have a serious bent -- you have to keep an eye on what your identity is up to.

Identity theft is no longer just about someone logging on to your favourite website and posting a few comments in your name. It's about losing your credit rating -- and even your liberty in some extreme cases.

In the UK one BBC journalist was surprised to discover someone had logged on to the Friends Online site posing as him and making comments that were, to put it mildly, out of character.

In the US there's the case of Malcolm Byrd, who had his ID claimed by a drug dealer. Now he gets picked up periodically by the police and taken in for questioning. He's even gone to the courts and freely submitted his fingerprints to try to avoid such arrests. Or what about the British pensioner arriving in South Africa to discover he was one of America's Most Wanted, and rather than hitting the wine trail as expected he got to spend a couple of weeks in jail?

Now it seems that even online job sites aren't beyond suspicion. Monster.com in the US has issued a warning about false job listings designed simply to attract potential employees' personal details.

This is all getting a little out of hand.

What's to be done in this digital age? When every piece of ID we carry is tagged to a database somewhere, the potential for personal damage is great. From the Mobil Max card tracking my purchases, to the Westpac credit card that has my signature digitally embossed on the back to my driver's licence, to my cellphone -- I have been tagged and released back into the wild.

What recourse would I have if someone logged on to a website claiming to be me? What's to stop someone using Google Groups signing up under a Hotmail account and slandering someone using my identity?

What happens if someone does get hold of one of those all-important identifying details that each of us carry through life. Mother's maiden name used to be the standard but that's pretty easy to work out these days I would think, if your mother even has a maiden name. It's just a quick trip to the Births, Deaths and Marriages website and, hey presto, you could be her new son.

Or what about date of birth? Whenever I ring my bank or credit card company I get asked when I was born. Is this like a state secret or something?

Passwords have long been a target of security-conscious administrators, but what about our own personal data? I must admit I have happily put in all kinds of personal information when filling out online forms without much thought. I hate to think what anyone who puts up those online personality tests will have on me; I've done the "What Star Wars/Lord of the Rings/Harry Potter/Star Trek character are you?" tests to death, not to mention the "When will you die?" one.

The US Federal Trade Commission has put up a site about the problem with an online form to fill out and some advice, which is good if you're American but probably not much use here. If you do suspect something's afoot you should immediately contact the credit agencies (Baycorp seems to be the largest still) and alert them to the problem. Your bank and employer should also be told, I would suggest, and you might want to think about your various licences, passport and even video cards.

I can't find anything about identity theft on the New Zealand government website, but I'm sure we'll hear more about it as time goes by. And if you get an odd email from me, just check the header information, okay?

Related story

Local recruiters downplay US warning of ID theft 

Brislen is IDGNet’s reporter. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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