Online Personal Information and Identity Theft
Identity theft remains one of the greatest threats to privacy across the globe. There was a time when the primary risk of compromised personal information resulted from the careless disposal or recycling of sensitive documents retrieved and used nefariously by “dumpster divers.” Currently, it takes more than shredding papers featuring personal information to protect identity. The personal information that people provide online is now more likely to lead to identity theft than any other method.
What Constitutes Identity Theft?
The National Security Agency defines identity theft as “a crime that involves using another person’s personal information to take malicious actions, such as conducting fraud or stealing funds.” Essentially, identity thieves purposely obtain personally identifiable information (PII) of others and use such information for financial gain, character abasement, legal troubles, and more.
Examples of PII include:
- Full, legal name
- Social security number
- Phone number
- Driver’s license number
- Account numbers
- Passwords and/or personal identification numbers (PINs)
- Social media information
Access to this information can result in impersonation of another individual in order to take money from bank accounts, make credit card charges, open new accounts, receive medical treatment, and even commit other crimes. Victims of identity theft can spend years repairing damage to their credit rating, legal reputation, and economic situation at great additional financial and emotional cost.
Cybercrime and Identity Theft
Now that most business and personal transactions take place through electronic devices and the internet, cybercrime is responsible for a majority of identity theft incidents. This means that providing personal information online creates the greatest risk for stolen PII and subsequent identity theft.
Cybercriminals tend to use three primary methods when it comes to identity theft: hacking, phishing, and pharming. It’s important to have a basic understanding of each method in order to protect privacy and avoid falling victim to such cybercrime.
Most people think of hacking on a large scale, such as corporate databases. However, victims of identity theft are more likely to be targeted through wireless hacking. Wireless hacking generally takes place through public WIFI or personal home networks that happen to be unsecured. When hackers connect to these networks, they can steal PII as well as potentially track an individual’s online presence.
Cybercriminals use phishing as a means of getting people to open emails with attachments or links for the purpose of obtaining PII. Unfortunately, these emails often appear to be official and legitimate which is why phishing has been an effective method for compromising privacy and stealing personal information online.
Cybercriminals utilize pharming as a way of obtaining PII through malware. For example, a cybercriminal may compromise someone’s internet browser through a computer virus. This would cause redirection through URL addresses to illegitimate websites with the purpose of collecting an individual’s data and information.
Unfortunately, there are numerous additional methods by which cybercriminals can steal online personal information. No internet user is immune from risk of identity theft. Therefore, it’s essential to understand ways to minimize such risk as much as possible.
Protecting Personal Information and Privacy
Of course, it’s nearly impossible to avoid providing personal information online. However, there are security measures that can be taken to protect personal privacy and reduce the risk of identity theft. For example, to avoid hacking, only use public WIFI networks as a last resort and do not conduct any financial business during public WIFI use. You can also protect your privacy at home by ensuring your personal WIFI network is secure and that you do not give out your internet password.
To avoid phishing scams, never respond to emails requesting you to open an attachment or click on a link as a means of confirming personal information. Many phishing emails don’t get by the “spam” filter. However, personal computers should also be protected with updated security software. Security software can also reduce the risk of becoming a victim of pharming.
For as many firewalls and security developments there are to protect internet users, cybercriminals are continuously finding methods of stealing PII. Therefore, defensive and avoidance methods may not be enough when it comes to protecting online personal information and privacy.
Proactive Measures to Protect Privacy
Rather than attempting to solely avoid or defend against stolen PII and identity theft, there are proactive measures that can be taken to protect your privacy. These measures require effort on the part of the individual. However, the amount of effort involved in protecting privacy is minor compared to the work it takes to overcome identity theft.
Here are some proactive means of protecting online personal information:
- Multi-factor authentication: Many online accounts are upping their security by requiring at least two methods of identification for access. This may be in the form of a password followed by a passcode sent to your personal phone or email for authentication. This dual security measure increases privacy protection.
- Monitor credit reports: Another proactive method of minimizing identity theft is regular monitoring of credit reports. This allows consumers to verify that their account information is safe and address any compromised information immediately.
- Regular updating or changing of passwords: Updating or changing passwords may seem like a tedious task. However, it is a proactive way of maintaining personal privacy when it comes to online accounts. Guarding your passwords is also essential to avoid becoming a victim of identity theft.
- Parental controls: It’s unfortunate, but cybercriminals often target children to get online personal information. Establishing parental controls through your internet provider can reduce this risk. In addition, it’s essential that parents educate their children about cyber safety and reinforce these lessons often.
Even with the strictest measures of protection and great attention to detail, all personal information provided online is at risk for cybercrime, leading to potential identity theft. However, this risk can be minimized. The culture of privacy has changed as more life is lived online. Yet, people are still entitled to the protection of their privacy, identity, and personally identifying information even over the internet, though it now requires some effort and vigilance on the part of each individual.