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The Resource Center Online Security Issues & Protection The Resource Center | article

Are Online Cookies Putting You At Risk For Identity Theft?

Not all cookies are delicious and homemade. Some might actually be putting you at greater risk of identity theft.

Internet cookies save your internet browsing history and could be putting you at risk of identity theft.

Not all cookies are delicious and homemade. Some might actually be putting you at greater risk of identity theft.

Online cookies are tiny bits of stored information containing your internet browsing history such as what pages you visited, how long you stayed on a site, what keywords you searched and any ads or links you clicked on.

Advertisers use cookies to trace your interests and potential shopping preferences. This is why if you have recently researched plumbers, for instance, you might suddenly be inundated with home maintenance ads. Some people enjoy this targeted marketing, because they're viewing only ads that relate to their lives. Others, however, desire a greater degree of privacy. It's really up to you to decide what you're comfortable with.

These cookies are placed on your computer by the site you are visiting in order to keep track of you as one particular user out of the many who make use of the site. These are typically used to store information like items in your shopping cart, login names and your location preference.

Different kinds of cookies do exist though. A flash cookie is a cookie that uses Adobe's Flash player to store its information. These cookies are somewhat special because they can store not only traditional information such as your website history, but can also keep track of your settings and preferences. Flash cookies, unlike other cookies, cannot always be deleted just by clearing cookies from your browser.

Since they store more information and are more difficult to erase, flash cookies are more likely than first or third-party cookies to place consumers at risk for identity theft. “Flash cookies can store much more information than the standard cookie," says security expert Scott Stevenson, "are usually undetected, and can remain indefinitely on a hard drive."

If you are using a private computer then you probably don't have to worry too much about erasing your cookies. If, however, you're using a public computer or public wifi, you should be sure to clear the data before you close out of your browser completely.

Here's how you can clear your cookies:

  • To delete regular cookies click "clear history" or find the privacy settings in your browser. From there you'll be able to disable and delete data. Be aware that doing this may limit your browsing experience. You may have to login to sites more often, and won't receive as many customized ads. For some, though, a less personalized web experience will be a fair trade-off for higher personal security.
  • To delete the more hardy flash cookies you can first pull up a Flash application, such as a YouTube video. Then, right click or control-click on the screen and you will gain access to the advanced privacy setting where you have the option of disabling Flash cookies.
  • You can also download "opt-out" cookies that control how websites keep track of your information.
  • You should always keep in mind that your web history provides cybercriminals with a very clear picture of your daily habits and interests. This knowledge can be dangerous because it means your identity and account information may be stored in places you don't even know exist.

    But there are additional steps you can take for added peace of mind. Consider enrolling in a credit monitoring service. While these services cannot prevent identity theft they can alert you to certain activity that may indicate fraud. The sooner you know, the sooner you can take action to stop further damage. You may also want to start using a password manager, which will encrypt all of your online credentials and securely log you on with a single sign on from both your mobile devices and desktop computers.