It’s 2019, and let’s face it, identity theft happens every day that ends in “Y,” millions of times over. In fact, it is so ubiquitous in our digital lives that, according to The Identity Theft Center, it has ranked number one on the FTC’s list of reported crimes for fifteen years straight! It is likely that you know someone in your extended circle of contacts that has been a victim of this horribly devastating crime if not your immediate family. Additionally, the negative impacts of identity theft on your quality of life is unique to this crime alone, simply because instead of a single incident, identity theft can have multiple ongoing effects on your life. However, the good news here is that you can easily take certain steps to protect yourself from becoming a victim, and part of doing so requires that you take a look at behaviors that you may be engaging in that put you at risk for having your identity stolen, and whenever possible, taking steps to eliminate such behavior.
- You are a heavy social media user
Social media has many benefits. You can keep in touch with friends and family without physically calling or visiting them. You can advance your career. You can make money by advertising your products or services. However, over the course of the last decade, social media overuse has led to the systematic destruction of the expectation of privacy that Americans used to treasure among one of the highest freedoms available to us. Instead of fighting to defend the right to privacy, we voluntarily gave it up through our adaptation of social media for the majority of our social connections. Because people tend to live their lives online at present, those with high social media consumption have become primary targets for identity thieves. This becomes especially true to those who befriend thousands of people that they do not know in real life. If your social media gets hacked by an identity thief, it will not be long before that person has set up a duplicate account by utilizing all of the data on your real account, and before long, the thief will be able to obtain personal information, such as your date of birth, Social Security number, mother’s maiden name, where you grew up and attended high school and university, where you work, and much more.
How to reduce the risk: Limit the nature of what you share. Choose a password that is completely random, has a mix of capitalization, numbers, letters, and symbols. Change this password once a month. Be careful of new friend requests and research those looking to connect with you out of the blue.
- You do not shred trash with your personal information on it
Whether it is your bank statements, paystubs, or medical records; your trash is treasure in the hands of an identity thief. While the ability to snipe and phish personal information through the internet has supplanted digging through the trash as the primary means of stealing identities, this does not mean that ID thieves have stopped this practice. On the contrary, it is alive and well, and many hard-working people lose millions – even billions – per year as a result of not taking the proper level of care when discarding sensitive information.
How to reduce the risk. If you have sensitive data to discard, make sure that you shred it using a cross-cut shredder that not only cuts your data into thin strips but also cuts horizontally to turn it into tiny confetti-like pieces that are close to impossible to recover. For added security, use a black permanent marker to obscure any personal information before you run it through the shredder.
Your shredder does not have to be expensive, although there are heavy duty ones out there that can run you a few hundred dollars. If you just have normal home office documents to shred, you can get a great one for less than $40.00, such as this one from AmazonBasics. Make sure the shredder you invest in can also handle credit cards and CDs.
- You receive your financial data online versus hard copy
If you are an everyday computer user, it is likely that you have signed up to receive your bank statements, credit card bills, insurance information, and other sensitive monthly documents online instead of through the mail. In fact, many companies now charge you a fee if you want hard-copy statements instead of the electronic form; or give you a discount for selecting the electronic delivery option. If you are among those who have your most important financial and private documents delivered to your email, you put yourself at grave danger for having your information stolen. This is especially true if the documents are delivered to you via email with a link inside the email to view the form or if the form is sent as an attachment to the email. In this case, all an ID thief must do is hack your email to have access to all of this information, and you probably will not find out that the breach has occurred until the criminals have opened accounts in your name.
How to reduce the risk: In this situation, there are some simple precautions that can harden your internet security while still allowing you the convenience of electronic delivery. The first step is to make sure that you are using an encrypted email service that uses “end-to-end” encryption. While this may sound complicated and technical, it is as simple as using a service such as ProtonMail (www.protonmail.com) for receiving all sensitive emails. The process is just as easy as getting an account with any of the other major web email services, like Gmail and Yahoo! mail. ProtonMail, in particular, offers this end-to-end encryption of all data stored on their servers, which has the effect that not even the highest-ranking members of the company can access your password or inbox. Once you have done this, make it a rock-solid, unbreakable rule that all emails that could possibly contain private/sensitive data like your SSN or bank account number are sent to this encrypted email address. Go back through all of your subscription accounts and ensure that delivery of all statements is forwarded to your new email address. Most importantly, make sure to observe the password rules mentioned earlier in this article to choose a password that is a random mix of capitalization, numbers, letters, and symbols; then, change this password monthly, preferably right before the majority of your statements are delivered. Finally, after you receive your statements each period, download them to an offline piece of backup media, such as a DVD or USB pen drive. After you have done this, permanently delete the emails containing the statements. Thus, in the event that your password is ever stolen, the perpetrator will find a big, empty inbox with nothing of value to them.
- You use online dating services.
By taking advantage of the innate human nature to feel loved, many cyber criminals target those utilizing online dating services to make a romantic match. The process is similar to the process used to target those who overuse social media, but with a certain twist of forged passion involved. The thieves that target online relationship seekers will generally look for profiles that share tons of information willingly, as these people tend to give over their information without too much effort. The criminal will then use the “long con” method, feigning a relationship with the victim for many months and, in some cases, years. While the scam used on these victims can be straight out identity theft, there is usually an extortion component as well that usually involved tricking the victim with so much false love and commitment that they feel comfortable sharing compromising pictures of themselves. Then, the thief will threaten to release the pictures unless the victim sends thousands of dollars via Western Union. Many times, the victims find that, as a result of the relationship, they have shared personal information with the scammer that has resulted in full-on identity theft. Because this crime involves taking advantage of one of the most basic human desires of the hearts, it is an especially brutal crime. Variations include extorting the victim for more compromising photos to prevent the release of the existing ones, which has ultimately led to the victim becoming so overwhelmed that they commit suicide, such as the case with Canadian teenager Amanda Todd (which was motivated by extortion and bullying instead of ID theft alone).
How to reduce the risks: The first and foremost method for preventing this is simply to stay away from online dating as a whole. However, those who feel compelled to use these services despite the risks involved should take the advice of those who advocate for safe online-to-physical transitions. Always insist on the most real form of communication possible before you actually meet the person. That means video calls/Facetime conversations whenever possible and telephone when video is not available. If the person starts to ask probing questions without revealing too much of their own details, run away immediately. If the person keeps giving excuses followed by more excuses for why they are unable to video chat, run away immediately. Once you begin talking to someone, do your due diligence and look into their online persona, including all social media; and make notes of any discrepancies. Make sure that the service you use is reputable, has good ratings, and gives you tips for staying safe. Finally, if anything doesn’t seem right, read the writing on the wall.
Identity theft is all around us, and it is not going anywhere soon. That much is certain. As time progresses and tools and methods are devised to combat the problem, the criminals will find other vulnerabilities to get the private information needed, such as the increasing data breaches that we have seen lately as consumer reporting agencies TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian – all of which have had major losses of credit information recently. While you personally cannot do anything about these large hacks, you can take steps to modify your online behavior to the extent that the effort required to steal your information is simply more than the thief is willing to exert. Identity theft is an enormously expensive crime that can take years to clean up. If you have been the victim of this crime and your credit has suffered as a result, working with a reputable credit repair organization can help you get back on your feet, and it is important to have such an advocate to face the storm ahead.
- Identity Theft Resource Center. ID Theft Number One Crime for 15 Years. Retrieved from https://www.idtheftcenter.org/identity-theft-1-complaint-to-the-ftc-15-consecutive-years/
- Amazon. AmazonBasics Cross-Cut Paper/Credit Card Shredder (Product Link): https://amzn.to/2B9SnjUv
- E-Harmony: Online Dating Safety Tips Everyone Should Know. Retrieved from https://www.eharmony.com/blog/online-dating-safety-tips-every-woman-should-know/#.XFHG41xKiM8
- Huffington Post (10/12/2012). Amanda Todd: Bullied Canadian Teen Commits Suicide. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/11/amanda-todd-suicide-bullying_n_1959909.html
- ProtonMail – End-to-End Encrypted Free E-Mail Accounts. Visit www.protonmail.com for more. (Product Link)