More than any time before, information about you is available. Unless you are actively trying to protect it, your buying preferences, home address, employment information, family members, income bracket, and many other pieces of demographic and more personal information are available to be searched, bought, and sold. Most of this trade in information is used for relatively harmless marketing purposes. However, a large number of people are victims of criminal identity theft and fraud every year. In 2014, the last year that data is available, about 17.6 million U.S. residents, about 7% of those over 15 years old, were victims of some form of identity fraud. The vast majority had their existing bank accounts used without their knowledge or permission. Of the people who were victims, about 7% had multiple types of identity fraud during the same time period. (Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Victims of Identity Theft, 2014”, https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/vit14_sum.pdf, Accessed 11/7/14, Published September 2015).
What is personal information?
Personal information, or Personally Identifying Information (PII) is any information that leads directly to you. Your Social Security number is PII, but also: your full name, address, email address, phone number, date of birth, and place of birth, and your parents’ names. Identifying numbers include your passport number, taxpayer ID, financial information, bank account information (including credit card numbers, credit reports and credit scores). Also some personal characteristics, like photos, fingerprints, handwriting, and now the increasingly common biometric data: retina scans, voice signatures, and facial recognition data. It can also include medical, employment and educational history.
How do people get ahold of it?
There are many ways your personal information can be made available. Some of it you and your family give out freely, and sometimes your information is stolen with the intent to do fraud.
Social Media: Be aware of your Social Media Profiles and check your settings to be sure you understand the privacy options, and review them regularly. Also, there’s your mom, or maybe your brother, or your college roommate. Seriously, they love to talk about you. Be sure your family and friends understand your wishes regarding social media privacy.
When people ask, you answer: When you have the option to use a number other than your SSN, take it. Don’t give out your SSN except to banks, credit report checks, and other financial institutions that you choose to do business with. Value your data and be protective even of the last four digits. Change your online passwords frequently. Finally, you blog or post it: don’t put your city, your age, or your last name in any casual web posting unless you want the online world to have the information.
From your computer: Your personal information can be stolen or released (with your unwitting consent) by your computer.
- Hardware: The most obvious is actual theft of your physical property: laptops, phones, and tablets. All are windows into our personal and financial lives. Ask yourself what someone could get into if they had your device. Do you have “remember me” checked on financial sites? Does your password manager instantly fill out your password to financial or other private accounts?
- Software: Even more serious is the possibility of malware. Software that was created with intent to do harm. All of your devices are susceptible to software attack and they should always be protected by anti-virus software and apps.
- Cookies: Cookies are trails left by your internet browsing history. This is why after you visit a website or amazon product about dog treats, you see adds targeting pet owners for the next month. It’s called re-marketing. Marketers record and trade your internet browsing information. You can protect yourself by regularly deleting, or not allowing cookies, clearing your internet history, or even better, use private or “incognito” mode on your browser. A step above private mode is to use TOR or a Virtual Private Network, or VPN to hide your IP address.
- Password protection: use random strong passwords, and use unique passwords for every account, especially financial accounts. Password manager software makes this more practical. More and more companies are offering two-factor authentication. This is usually a combination of a password and a code that’s delivered to you (usually by text, but it may be email or voice as well). Sign up for this whenever it’s available.
Snail Mail: Another ready source of information about you is your mailbox. Account numbers, full name, bank details, it’s all in your mail. If you don’t already have a locking box, get one. If possible go green by eliminating unnecessary personal information being mailed to you. We want to reduce the amount of channels your personal information travels through.
How can your information be used?
Your information may be used for Marketing and Spam, fraudulent use of your identity for financial gain, and unwanted snooping that can range from an over curious co-worker or acquaintance to serious crimes like stalking and violence.
Marketing and Spam: marketing is not a legal threat, but it can be annoying, and there is a lot of information about you that you probably don’t want big companies to be trading about. Companies that want to know as much as they can about you so they can target ads based on your demographics and preferences, with the ultimate goal of parting you from your hard earned cash by selling you something.
Identity theft: Identity theft and fraud are the identity threats you hear about most, and they are the most financially damaging. The most common form of identity fraud is the misuse of your credit cards, but bad actors can go as far as buying property in your name if they have enough of your information. Identity thieves can also file fake tax returns, and change contact and password information on your actual financial accounts – and then steal from them.
Snooping: This doesn’t have to rise to the level of creepy stalking, it could be a simple as a prospective employer or over curious acquaintance. Whatever the creep factor or intent of your snoop, it is a good idea to make sure people searching for information about you only see what you want them to.
How can you protect your personal information?
You can protect yourself in two ways: First, by preventing the spread of your personal information (keep it secret, keep it safe). Minimize the variety of channels your information can pass through. Second, by insuring yourself against losses due to identity theft. Set up a google alert for your name. If you’re not in the market for new credit, consider placing a credit freeze through the three credit bureaus: Experian, TransUnion and Equifax. Even if you have not made any mistakes and have perfectly protected your information, data breaches are now the norm and are highlighted by daily news. Big companies have your information, and they are the target of hackers. If you’ve been involved in a data breach (companies have to notify you if your data was stolen and/or potentially compromised), consider Identity Theft Protection with SSN monitoring service. Many companies will help to alert you of potential fraudulent use of your identity. These identity monitoring services provide SSN monitoring, identity verification, and even identity theft protection in the form of identity insurance.
Credit World statement: You own your personal information. Value, protect and monitor it.