Want to know an easy way to make yourself a prime target for identity theft or collection scams? Apply for a bad credit loan online. Once you’ve applied, your personal information can be used by or sold to anyone, anywhere in the world. This is National Protect Your Identity Week and avoiding online loan scams is one way to do that.

At Credit.com, we’ve received hundreds of complaints over the years from consumers who are being harassed by bogus debt collectors for debts they don’t owe, or who have sent hundreds or thousands of dollars to scammers in the hopes of getting loans they urgently need. In both cases, their personal information appears to have been compromised when they tried to get an emergency loan, cash advance loan, or even small business loan online.

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The firms that set up these websites know what they are doing. They often promise loans to those who have been turned down elsewhere. But if you fall for their pitch and apply, your personal data could end up in Pakistan, Russia or somewhere else. Sometimes that site will act as a “lead generator” and simply sell the information to other companies. At other times, the website will be a front for an advance fee loan company. You’ll be told you have been approved for a loan, but that you need to pay the first few monthly payments upfront, or send an “insurance” fee before the funds will be disbursed.

Either way, you lose.

Not all online loans are scams. After all, here at Credit.com, we help match consumers with credit cards, personal loans, and other financial products online. We take our responsibility for ensuring that they have a safe experience seriously. So I am not going to say, “Never apply for a loan online.” But sadly, the more desperate you are to get a loan, the more likely you are to be taken.

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So how do you check out an online loan site before you hand over your personal information?

Before you provide personal information to a website, look for signs that the site is secure: “https” in the URL, and a security certificate from a company like Verisign are examples of online security measures.

In a search engine, type in the name of the company + the word “complaints” to see what pops up. A few complaints here and there may be one thing. Lots of them are a red flag. You can do the same kind of search with the firm’s phone number.

Check out the domain name of the website on the to find out when the website was started and by whom. If it’s a new site, be extra cautious and do more digging to find out if it’s legit.

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Research the address of the firm using google maps. If you see an empty lot, a residential neighborhood, a postal box type location, or something else that doesn’t look right, pass up the “opportunity” to apply. Remember, most of these companies use a U.S. address to make them look more authentic, but are in fact based overseas.

Don’t pay money upfront for a loan. Do not let one of these outfits talk you into giving them cash before you get the loan. And remember that Western Union is the favorite pick for these scammers to collect from you.

Credit.com’s Personal Finance Expert, Gerri focuses on financial legislation, budgeting, debt recovery and consumer savings information. She is also the co-author of , and . Reach Gerri at .

This article originally appeared on .

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