online formWhen it comes to filling out an online form to sign up for a service or even apply for a credit card, we usually don’t think twice before we start typing away. Although it’s comforting to assume that our information will be provided to a company that we can trust, this, unfortunately, isn’t always the case.

At the end of December, the FTC brought charges against data broker LeapLab for facilitating the theft of millions of dollars from consumers’ accounts. The complaint stated that LeapLab purchased payday loan applications and sold the information contained within to marketers of dubious reputation. At least one of these marketing companies then used this information to take millions from consumers’ accounts without proper authorization. The FTC has also brought charges against one of these companies, Ideal Financial Solutions. When LeapLab purchased the payday loan applications it sold, only approximately 5% were handed over to legitimate loan companies. The majority, however, were sold to third-party organizations with no regard for how the information — which included consumers’ names, addresses, social security numbers and bank account numbers, among other data — would then be used.

This wasn’t an isolated incident

Cybersecurity blogger Brian Krebs dug into the LeapLab story and discovered that it wasn’t the only source Ideal Financial Services used to obtain consumer information. Scammers can be really stupid, often sending all-too-obvious phishing emails that make you want to roll your eyes as you hit the button to mark it as spam. But they can also be really smart. In this case, the companies purporting to evaluate loan applicants’ information to determine whether they qualify or not were preying on people who are desperate for money. The payday loan debt cycle is enough of a danger with legitimate loan companies, but the thousands of scam companies set up to take advantage of those opting for a short-term loan are also a significant problem.

This is a frightening example of a practice that is, sadly, all too common these days. It is a reminder to us all that the importance of knowing who you are providing your information to is vitally important.

How can I be safe when filling out online forms?

1. Do your research. Before handing your information over through an online form, do some digging into the company’s background. According to a source interviewed by Krebs, the people who submitted their information to one payday loan website were immediately redirected to another site with multiple loan options. Even more worrisome, none of those interviewed could recall the name of the website they had given their information to. Whether you’re making a purchase, applying for a loan or any other reason, look into the company’s history and reputation before handing over your information. Search for the company on the Better Business Bureau website or do an old-fashioned Google search to see what comes up. If a website is known for scamming, you can find out pretty quickly this way!

Another way to determine the legitimacy of a website is to look it up on the database. You can learn who owns the domain, when the domain was created and when it is set to expire. A brand new domain or one set to expire soon may be indicative of a site set up for scamming purposes.

2. Check to ensure the website is secure. Even if you are giving information to a legitimate company, the security of that company’s website is just as important. One simple way to check the security of a website is to look at the address bar when you visit the site. If the URL begins with “https://” instead of the usual “http://” you can be certain you are visiting a secure website — the “s” stands for “secure.” Additionally, many web browsers will change color on the left-hand side to indicate a website that has been verified as secure. Learn more about how to tell if a website is secure in this guide. Knowing a site is secure before filling out the online form is a good way to ensure your information will be transmitted securely.

3. Take a minute to decide whether it’s worth the risk. Especially in any case where you are providing your social security, credit card or bank account numbers, you should be deliberate in making the decision to hand over your information. After all, it takes only a moment to send a scammer your information — but it could take months and even years to recover from the devastating aftermath of identity theft and financial fraud. If you are having second thoughts about a website, follow your instincts and look into other options instead of filling out a potentially dangerous online form.

Being careful offline is equally important

It’s not just online forms you need to worry about — scammers are still targeting people in the offline world as well. Whether you’re attending job fairs, wedding expos or even walking down the street, you might find yourself being asked to fill out a survey and provide your personal information. Although jotting down your name, phone number, email address or other details might seem harmless, this can potentially open you up to annoying telemarketing phone calls, emails and postal mail. In the worst cases, you might end up as a target for scammers who purchase your information from data brokers like LeapLab.

Whenever possible, avoid giving out your information to strangers. If you do receive phone calls requesting your personal information, don’t give it out without asking as many questions as you can. Scammers typically don’t want to — or can’t — answer your questions. Don’t be afraid to hang up the phone, look up the company the scammer purports to represent, and then call back using a phone number from the company’s business card or a trusted website, such as the company’s site or its accredited Better Business Bureau page. You can use the same research advice for any company that contacts you, and it’s also worth Googling the phone number of anyone who calls asking for your information. Often, you will find information from others who have been contacted by the same people warning about any scams involved.

Identity theft protection services can help

While they can’t prevent your information from being stolen, an identity theft protection service can help spot fraudulent activity and alert you in a timely fashion. That’s because the top services monitor the Internet black market for your personal information to ensure it isn’t being sold, traded or otherwise used. Many also provide credit report monitoring to ensure suspicious accounts aren’t being opened in your name. Visit our identity theft protection reviews to find out more information about this crime and determine which service would be the best fit for you.