How Is Technology Changing Identity Theft?


Technology makes modern life easier for many, but innovation also creates more avenues for thieves to prey on the unsuspecting. The 2017 Equifax breach demonstrates how cybercriminals can penetrate even the toughest encrypted data. Since modern record keeping requires individuals to provide their Social Security numbers and other personally-identifying information (PII) for things like establishing a bank account, filling out new-hire paperwork or even obtaining emergency medical care, everyone not dwelling in a cave bears some risk.

Computer programmers work around the clock to secure servers and computer systems from data breaches. But as soon as they eliminate some threats, others arise to take their place. Everyone must take responsibility to safeguard themselves against identity theft or risk losing their hard-earned money and more.

How Technology Leads to Theft

Back in the typewriter days, identity thieves could steal personal information in only a few ways: they swiped wallets and purses, ran phone scams or posed as an upstanding employee all the while gathering PII. Most people could avoid identity theft by keeping an eye on their belongings and locking essentials in secure file cabinets.

Now, however, the internet allows identity thieves to gather PII through a wealth of avenues. Criminals attack individual computers with phishing schemes. They also hack into the servers of large organizations, gathering data on thousands of customers. Those shopping or pumping gas must look for skimmers, and unlocked cell phones can give swindlers access to banking information and more.

Phishing scams occur when identity thieves send mass emails appearing to come from legitimate financial institutions or well-known businesses. Many request users click on a link to verify personal information. When unwitting email users click the link and submit their info, the crook then uses it to open new accounts and run up bills in another’s’ name.

Other computer hackers include bits of programming called spyware on downloadable files. When an internet user unknowingly installs this software as part of a separate download, the spyware sends every keystroke direct to the bandits.

Many smartphone and computer users alike automatically connect to public Wi-Fi networks at their fitness center or favorite coffee shop. Hackers can interrupt the flow of data anywhere along the connection to steal personal information. Even performing seemingly innocuous tasks like checking email may expose PII to nefarious data-theft gurus.

To illustrate the extent to which identity theft impacts people, in 2016 alone, scammers bilked innocent consumers out of $16 billion and caused untold heartache for many. As technology continues to emerge, that number will likely soar even higher.

New Vulnerabilities

New payment methods such as ApplePay may lead hackers to develop new technologies to steal customer PII at the checkout. Additionally, clever identity thieves now complete purchases online and have items shipped to vacant homes where they can gather the goods left on doorsteps under cover of night. Alternately, they can use site-to-store shipping options and collect their purchases using fake IDs.

The rise of cryptocurrency has likewise created new opportunities for identity theft. One German couple suffered a $14,000 loss from theft of their Bitcoins. As cryptocurrency has no centralized bank in any nation and rules surrounding its use remain nebulous, law enforcement encounters significant difficulty in bringing thieves of such currency to justice should they locate them at all.

How Individuals Can Protect Themselves

As our lives grow ever more dependent upon technology, everyone shares in the responsibility for halting ID thieves in their tracks. Individual computer users can protect themselves by installing antivirus and anti-spyware software on their laptops and towers and keeping their machines updated.

Companies with remote workers who deal in financial matters and customer PII should require all employees sign into their business’ virtual private network (VPN) prior to commencing their workday. Employers who issue computers to employees should maintain administrator status over these machines and set them to lock automatically when idle to keep prying eyes from sensitive data.

Everyone should check their credit reports regularly and alert authorities immediately should they notice any unfamiliar accounts. Individuals who suspect they may have fallen victim to identity theft should lock their credit with all three major bureaus to avoid crooks from opening more accounts in their name.

Smartphone, tablet and computer users can also download a multitude of apps to alert them to potential fraud and protect them from identity theft. Programs like Identity Guard and Life Lock cost pennies compared to the high price of restoring financial peace of mind following a breach.

Finally, avoid clicking on links in emails or downloading programs from unofficial sites. If an email looks legitimate, type the company’s URL directly into your browser as opposed to clicking the emailed link.

The Future of Identity Theft

Advancing technology keeps programmers on their toes as they scramble to provide new solutions aimed at keeping customers safer. In the meantime, everyone should take simple measures like not clicking on email links and utilizing software and apps to stymie criminals. With a bit of awareness and common sense, people can protect themselves from falling victim to identity theft.

Disclaimer: This post is sponsored by PSECU, a Pennsylvania-based credit union.

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