Consumer Corner Column

Consumer Corner: Protect your personal data – online and off

Release Date: Jan 25, 2012

By Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt

Nearly every day, our office hears stories of Kansans whose personal information has ended up in someone else’s hands. In today’s information age, it is easier than ever for identity thieves to get this information. On January 28, we recognize National Data Privacy Day. As we commemorate this day and begin a new year, it is a good time to review your precautions to guard against a tragic – and perhaps costly – privacy breach.

Our computers contain a significant amount of personal information. Passwords, financial information and other files are often stored on our hard drives and even on the Internet. Identity thieves may try several different methods to gain access to this information.

  • Phishing scams. People on the Internet are not always who they claim to be. In a phishing scam, an identity thief will send you an email pretending to be your bank, credit card company or another place of business. It may tell you that your password has expired and you need to reply to the email with your old password and new password to reset it. Or the email may contain a link that directs you to a website to change your password. The email and website may look official, even containing your bank’s logo. But this is just a scam to gain access to your online banking account.

    If you use online banking, always go through your bank’s homepage to access your account. Links in emails cannot always be trusted, even if they look official.
  • Viruses. Scam artists and hackers can also gain access to your system by installing a virus on your computer. These viruses can then record your every action on your computer, including capturing your usernames and passwords to online accounts. The best way to avoid these viruses is to be very cautious when opening email attachments or downloading files from the Internet. Only open files from trusted sources. You should also be sure your antivirus software is up-to-date, and regularly scan your system for viruses.
  • Electronic devices. Thieves are always on the lookout for electronics, especially when they are left inside a car. When a thief gets a hold of a laptop computer or smartphone, they don’t just get the device itself, but may be able to access the personal information stored on it. To prevent this from happening, first be sure to keep the device in a secure location. Second, use strong passwords to lock your computer and smartphone. Additionally, you may want to put another level of password protection on sensitive files and applications.
  • Physical files. Even with all the information that has been digitized, most of us still have many paper files. Whether it is tax information, blank checks, bank statements or bills, these documents can contain significant personal information. It’s important to keep these documents in a secure place in our homes and offices, and to properly destroy them before throwing them away. Shredding them with a cross-cut shredder is one of the best ways to make sure identity thieves can’t get this information from your dumpster. Later this spring, our office will be sponsoring several shred-a-thons across the state to help you safely dispose of personal information.

Even with the best precautions, data breaches do occur. News reports of hackers getting into banks and government computer systems are unfortunately common. When these data breaches occur, federal and state laws do give you some protections. The business or agency where the data breach occurred is required to notify you of the breach. They may also be required to report the breach to credit monitoring agencies.

Our office is continuing to crack down on identity theft – one of the fastest-growing crimes in America. If you believe you have been a victim of identity theft, please contact our office at 1-800-432-2310 or at