SEBRING - Online identity theft appears to be affecting more Americans, according to a January 2014 Pew Research Center survey.
Almost one in five online adults has reported theft of personal information, such as Social Security numbers and credit card or bank account information, the survey says, up from 11 percent in a July 2013 survey to 18 percent.
Twenty-one percent of online Americans also said their email or social networking account was compromised or hijacked, the study says.
Lake Placid Police Chief James Fansler said they get a number of credit card fraud cases where victims' credit cards are cloned. This happens online, as well, he said.
"As for the tax refund incidents, we haven't seen any this year within the city," he said.
Highlands County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Nell Hays said identity theft complaints run the gamut, and while the number of cases have gone up over the years, it's hard to tell if scam artists are getting busier or if people are reporting more instances to authorities.
"Last week's discovery of the Heartbleed security flaw is the latest in a long string of bad news about the vulnerabilities of digital data," the Pew Center survey states.
The bug, which affects a widely-used encryption technology that is intended to protect online transactions and accounts, went undetected for more than two years. Security researchers are unsure whether hackers have been exploiting the problem, but it is estimated to affect up to 66 percent of active sites on the Internet.
In December, Target announced that 40 million of its customers' credit and debit card information had been compromised. In January, Nieman Marcus reported the theft of 1.1 million credit and debit cards by hackers who had invaded its systems with malware.
"Research suggests that young adults and younger baby boomers may have been especially hard hit in the second half of 2013," the study concludes.
Hays said some of the common online identity theft scams people fall for are fraudulent emails saying their online PayPal accounts have been discontinued or bank accounts have been compromised.
People should remember that banks don't email customers, or ask for personal information they already have, she reiterated.
"The bank will contact you directly," she said. Her advice - just delete the email.
"If you use credit cards and debit cards, there is a risk you take for the convenience of using them," she said. "That's why you have to be vigilant."
Computer technicians who work to fix operating systems compromised by scammers and viruses are not surprised by the study.
Owner of Highlands Computer Pro Inc. Mark Hull encounters infected computers all the time.
A new virus is being created every hour, every year, he said, and while no anti-virus protection software can provide complete, up-to date protection against this floodgate, activating all the firewall software in a computer - from downloading Windows' security updates to turning on a wi-fi firewall or the web browser is a commonsensical way to keep computers protected, he said.
Meanwhile, identity theft was reported as the top complaint category out of 30 in 2013 for the Consumer Sentinel Network, an online database of consumer complaints nationwide.
And Florida is the state with the highest per capita rate of reported fraud and other types of complaints, followed by Nevada and Georgia, the report states.
In 2001, there were 86,250 identify theft complaints in the network's database, a count that went up three times in 2013, which itself was lower than the 2012 county of 369,145, figures show.
Last year, 61 percent of identity theft victims reported the complaint to police and a report was filed.
Perhaps, because of their more prevalent online use, 40 percent of identify theft victims last year were between ages 20 to 39, figures show.
Last year, 30 percent of identify theft complaints were related to fraudulent tax or wage filings, the network states, followed by bogus credit cards and new accounts for utilities, the network's figures show.
Hays said residents who notice even a 93-cent charge on their credit card they think is not theirs should dispute it, and carefully check all their statements. Any spelling errors or incorrect information in emails should be red flags, she added.
The U.S. Army also offers the following cyber tips for social networking sites:
1. Know the terms on social networking websites. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social networking sites privacy settings default to everyone. This means anyone, can view your profile, not just people you know. Users can and should change this by accessing the Privacy Settings/Profile Information usually found under the respective Account tab.
2. Sample social networking safely. Never disclose private information when using social networking websites. Be very selective about who you invite or accept invitations from as cyber criminals use false profiles to gain access to personal and private information, such as birthdates, marital status, and personal photographs. Posts containing personal identifying information (PII), including pictures containing metadata can be used against you and your family.
3. Click with caution. Always use caution when clicking on links in an email or a social networking post, even from someone you know. Reports of personal social networking accounts being hacked and taken over by criminals have increased in recent years. Clicking on a link that appears to be benign in nature may in fact contain embedded malware that can compromise your computer. Once compromised, the data on your computer can be exploited and even your computer can be remotely operated as a surrogate in online attacks against others.
4. Hide your profile from search engines. This can be accomplished by going to the Account/Privacy Settings/ Search and unchecking the "Public Search Results" box. This will remove your public preview from Google, Bing, and Yahoo search returns.
5. Prevent people from "tagging" you in photos and videos. To do this, go to the Account/Privacy Settings/Profile Information/Photos and Videos of Me and deselect the everyone default.
Debit card or debit card?
Since a debit card is a direct line to your bank account, there are places where it can be wise to avoid handing it over - if for no other reason than complete peace of mind, creditcard.com states.
Here are some of the places to avoid using a debit card, they advise: Online, for big-ticket items, when a deposit is required, restaurants, when you're a new customer, buy-now-delivery-later purchases, recurring payments, future travel and gas stations and hotels.