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Avoiding identity theft

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WILMINGTON -- Handling personal finances online is often easier than doing it the old fashioned way.

But with identity theft becoming more common, consumers need to be careful.

Local experts on identity theft say the best way to deal with online theft online is to try and avoid it in the first place.

Perhaps the most common online scam is called phishing. That's when criminals use email to link consumers to phony websites and "confirm" their personal information.

Private investigator Bill Ratcliff said, "They want your name, address bank account information and they say they're going to send you money. Well that's not true -- at all. And they'll take everything they can from you."

Ratcliff is a private investigator in Wilmington who handles cases of identity fraud. He warns that online identity thieves are often underestimated.

"Everyone tries to stay one step ahead of the hackers, but the hackers are still very, very good."

Wilmington Police detective Paul Verzaal agrees. He handles multiple fraud cases each week. He says crimes committed online often lead to dead ends.

Verzaal said, "The ones over the internet were not so successful. Especially when you're talking distances across state lines and those sorts of things."

More advanced methods of online theft include hacking into personal credit, billing and other accounts.

The Federal Trade Commission advises those who handle their finances online to be proactive.

According to the commission's web site, your accounts should be followed closely and you should check your PC often for spyware, a common method hackers use to steal information.

Verzaal says being proactive is also the best way to avoid being reeled in by internet phishers. If you get an email that requests personal information, it's probably a good idea to research the company first before giving anything away.

"You might just want to call them -- you know, you initiate the contact if you have any questions..."

The state Attorney General also has information about how you can protect yourself here in North Carolina. You can find it online at www.noscamnc.gov.

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