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RISMEDIA, March 31, 2010—(MCT)—Sitting at the computer to pay your bills, go shopping or do your banking is common. It’s quick, convenient and oh-so-green. But it’s not without risks. And while most transactions go through seamlessly, you can unwittingly fall victim to full-blown identity theft, or just a subtle trickle of money from an account.

For Marika Rose, a Sacramento communications consultant, it happened so stealthily that it took years before she noticed. In January, she spotted a couple of puzzling charges on her debit card statement. The amounts were small—$24.95—and she’d seen them before, but always assumed they were for purchases she or her husband had made. Curious, she started looking back through old statements and found dozens of similar charges. When she called the company listed on the statement, Rose was told the monthly charges—which had been quietly increasing since 2007—were for a “shopping membership” that she unknowingly signed up for while making an online purchase.

Digging deeper, she discovered her “membership” had sucked more than $1,100 out of her account in the past three years. “I was shocked that in little increments, a company could siphon off so much from my checking account,” Rose said. She assumes the membership fee got started from a pop-up window that she didn’t opt out of.

Ultimately, the company reversed all the charges and she canceled her debit card. She also filed a dispute report with her financial institution.

Technically, Rose’s experience isn’t identity theft, which is the illegal use of personal financial information to commit fraud. In 2009, identity theft jumped 12%, hitting 11.1 million U.S. consumers, according to an annual survey released last month by Javelin Strategy & Research. “It doesn’t seem to be going away and it’s getting more sophisticated and more organized by criminal rings,” said Joanne McNabb, chief of California’s Office of Privacy Protection.

On the heels of the Javelin findings, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. recently reminded consumers to take precautions. It even posted its own YouTube video, “Don’t Be an Online Victim.”

“Online fraud is an ongoing game of cat and mouse,” fraud specialist David Nelson said in the FDIC’s warning. “Crooks continuously hunt for security holes, banks and merchants plug those holes, and then the criminals find new ones to slink through.”

Consumers can keep the bad guys at bay, he says, by taking precautions and remaining vigilant. Among the FDIC’s tips:

-If you bank online, frequently check your accounts to spot errors or fraudulent transactions. The sooner you detect a problem, the easier it can be to fix.

-Don’t respond to “urgent” requests. Never give out your Social Security, credit or debit card numbers or pin in response to an unsolicited e-mail, text message or phone call. That “urgent” message purportedly from a bank, merchant or government agency (such as the IRS) could be a scam attempting to trick you into divulging personal and account information.

-Watch out for bogus text messages. Cell phone texts claiming that your bank account has been “blocked” and that you must call to fix the problem can be a scam. If you make the call, you’ll likely be asked for your account and pin, which can be used to create counterfeit debit cards.

-Don’t open attachments or click on links in unsolicited e-mails. Your computer could become infected with “spyware” that changes your security settings and records your keystrokes. It lets online thieves silently steal your passwords, bank or credit card numbers and obtain answers to security questions, like your mother’s maiden name.

In one recent example, the FDIC said, criminals sent out fake IRS e-mails warning recipients they were being investigated for unreported income and advising them to click on an attachment for more information. Doing so launched a program that allowed hackers to install spyware on personal computers, in order to access bank accounts.

McNabb said a lot of identity theft is “beyond the control of consumers to prevent,” things like data theft from businesses or hospitals. But in general, she said, consumers should keep their computer well protected with security software and avoid responding to any online “phishing” for personal financial information.

(c) 2010, The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.).

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.