Special Report: Computer Skimming

When John Wetmore travels for work, public computers are his life line for email access. But he wonders – when he logs on at a library, hotel or coffee shop, who else is watching?

“My biggest worry when I’m using a public computer is has someone installed spyware on it?” Wetmore said. “There’s spyware on it, then someone can capture the key strokes and know my account and my password and then I’m probably vulnerable.”

Vulnerable is right. Experts say anyone using public computers may expose themselves to identity thieves waiting to swipe what you type online.

Believe it or not – there are no laws or regulations requiring public computers be secured against spyware programs.

As a result: many public computers are without safeguards.

“Criminals harvesting personal information off of public computers is an extremely prevalent crime in the united states,” Forensic Computer Investigator Damon Petraglia said. “Unprotected or unsecured network or publicly accessible computer means that it becomes a breeding ground for criminal activity.”

Damon Petraglia is a member of the U.S. Secret Service Electronic Crimes task force. He trains law enforcement agencies on computer security regularly.

First, he downloads a key-logging program onto a computer. It records every letter, number, punctuation mark and space someone types. If he were a criminal, he’d leave the computer open for someone else to use and later, come back to see what was recorded.

A criminal can pick up a log in name and password within seconds.

“There are hundreds and hundreds of different applications that criminals can use in a public environment to do nothing but record your data,” Petraglia said.

“You wouldn’t know that you became a victim from that,” Nikki Junker of the Identity Theft Resource Center said.

Last year the FTC got more than 250,000 identity theft complaints and most victims don’t have any idea how it happened.

“You need to stay aware of what’s going on,” Junker said. “You need to be aware of what you’re doing.”

To protect yourself at public computers
  • minimize the accounts you access
  • never type a password
  • never bank online
And if you do use a password protected site, change it as soon as you get home.

“Whatever information someone got when I was on the road it won’t do anybody any good anymore,” Wetmore said.

Experts say it’s good idea to change your password frequently to all accounts you have as a precaution, no matter where you log onto the web.

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