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UI student combats ID theft

BY SAMANTHA HONKEN | OCTOBER 15, 2009 7:20 AM

UI Ph.D. student works to combat identity theft

Advice on staying safe online:

• Be more aware when giving out any personal information online
• Don’t click on links in your e-mail; type them into the browser
• Be cautious of any e-mails from a sender you don’t recognize

Source: Peter Likarish, UI computer science Ph.D. student

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Thinking about global crime fighters may conjure images of Batman, Superman, or Spiderman.

But one UI Ph.D. student is putting a new face on crushing bad guys across the world.

Peter Likarish, a fourth-year graduate student in the computer-science department, is working to develop a Firefox plug-in that would tell people when they are entering possible phishing sites, which take users’ personal information illegally.

“This is affecting more and more people,” he said.

Identity theft is becoming an increasing problem, especially with the rise of digital technology, said Emory Lundberg, the senior security analyst for the UI Information Technology Services.

“It’s a global problem,” he said.

And the problem is prevalent locally, too.

Iowa City has seen an increasing number of identity-theft reports, said Iowa City police Sgt. Mike Lord, and officers respond to several cases of varying severity each day.

Traditionally, people have stolen identities in paper form, such as mailing envelopes or disposed checks. But cases involving electronics are growing.

Likarish said he hopes his program will fill loopholes left by Internet browsers. The browsers, such as Internet Explorer or Firefox, create blacklists of websites known for phishing. If a user visits one of these sites, he or she receives an alert that contains suspicious information.

But Internet surfers are still vulnerable to new phishing sites that have yet to be blacklisted by browsers, a problem Likarish is trying to solve.

Once finished, users will be able to download the new technology installed as a toolbar. The program will analyze each site’s user visits and break down the content to determine the likelihood of it being a phishing site.

“This is a way to complement the black list technology,” Likarish said.

He hopes his program can be released on a large-scale by January 2010.

A universitywide e-mail sent on Sept. 28 helped inform students and employees about the dangers of phishing, but Lundberg said keeping everyone safe online is difficult.

“Some phishing attacks are very specific and targeted,” he said. “You can never stop all attempts by an automatic filter.”

Greg Bal, the supervising attorney for Student Legal Services, said three or four students come to him each year with identity-theft concerns.

And though it is difficult to describe a “typical” case of identity theft, he said, his office makes sure students know who to communicate with to solve the problem efficiently. This may mean referring students to their bank or local law enforcement agency.

Likarish said even the most tech-savvy people can find themselves victims to online identity theft.

“It’s not just people who are computer illiterate,” he said. “They also attack the most successful computer users.”


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