Who Steals My Purse Steals Trash

“Who steals my purse steals trash,” Shakespeare wrote, “but he that filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him, and makes me poor indeed.”

Today these words are truer than ever, with one exception: now “he that filches my good name” can enrich himself from it. On Thursday, October 16, CTV News Ottawa at 6:00 will be featuring a story on protecting yourself from identity theft.

As our daily lives move increasingly online, we become more vulnerable to identity theft. In the online world our personal information is who we are: if someone gets your e-mail address and password, for all intents and purposes they become you. Despite this, most of us have yet to be as careful with our personal information as we are with our physical privacy.

Two main motives underlie identity theft: to use a stolen identity to get money or goods, and to damage the victim's reputation. Whatever the motive, the same habits can make us vulnerable to identity theft. First is a lack of scepticism and critical thinking; a moment's thought, for instance, would suggest to us that our bank probably wouldn't send us an e-mail asking us to verify our account number. Another moment's research would find a statement telling us so on the bank's Web site. Nevertheless, many people fall victim to such “phishing” scams.

This points toward a more general tendency to undervalue our privacy, giving away personal information without thinking of the consequences. Facebook, MySpace and similar social networking sites are good examples of this: study after study has shown that users of these services fail to consider the risks of placing their personal information online. In addition to the harm that can be done to one's reputation – both by others and oneself – there can be financial consequences of an overly candid Facebook profile: identity thieves can do a lot with just your birth date, name and address. Address spoofing, where stolen email addresses are used to distribute spam, requires just one piece of personal information: your e-mail address.

There are several Canadian resources to help you prevent and recover from identity theft:

Identity Theft: What it is and what you can do about it (Office of the Privacy Commissioner)

Identity Theft (RCMP)

It's never too young to start thinking about privacy. MNet has produced two recent resources on privacy management: Privacy and Internet Life, a lesson for Grades 7-8 which teaches students how to protect their personal information on social networking sites such as Facebook, and The Privacy Dilemma, a lesson for Grades 9-12 which asks students to consider and discuss the trade-offs we all make on a daily basis between maintaining our privacy and gaining access to information services.