Think about a typical day in your life: You post on social media about your vacation plans. Maybe do some online shopping or hit the gym. You may need to stop by the grocery store. In the evening, you fill out a job application. Has the thought ever occurred to you about how many times during each day you may be giving out personally identifiable information while conducting these activities—potentially putting yourself at risk?
In today's world, it may be hard to keep track of where and how often you have provided personal data such as a phone number, email address or even a piece of information as important as a Social Security number.
Let's look back at how this could happen during the aforementioned activities:
- You forgot your social media account settings were set to public.
- While online shopping you may have used unsecured Wi-Fi and used a debit card for your purchase.
- At the gym, there was a contest to win a water bottle so you wrote down your name and email address on an unsupervised clipboard by the registration desk.
- At the grocery store, you couldn't find your rewards card so you shared your phone number aloud to the cashier within earshot of shoppers.
- You included your SSN on your job application.
While all of these activities seem trivial, you may have exposed your personal information more than necessary.
As demonstrated, there are many opportunities to give out personal information and consumers are not aware of the risks. Certainly, providing data to businesses often allows you to obtain special deals, coupons and promotional offers, which are great. However, be mindful how that information is shared (Don't yell it across the room!) and how much of it you publicize (Hello, social media)—especially if it's as important as your Social Security number.
Read more here about how to manage your social media privacy settings.
How Your Information Gets on the Dark Web
Nearly 60 million Americans have been affected by identity theft, according to a 2018 online survey by The Harris Poll; when your information is stolen by a cyber-criminal, it will likely be sold on the dark web.
For identity thieves, the dark web is a marketplace for personal information, including phone numbers, email addresses, account passwords and Social Security numbers that can be used to commit identity theft and fraud. The results are that thieves can open a credit card account in your name, steal your tax return, try to hack into your financial accounts, and conduct other malicious activities.
"While it's doubtful that your local dry cleaner or gym will be targeted by an identity thief, any database is attractive to a cybercriminal," says Brian Stack, vice president of Dark Web Intelligence at Experian. "Companies can also be victims of rogue employees, and smaller operations may have less security. It's best to err on the side of caution when giving out personal information."
Better Manage Your Personal Data
Here are a few steps you can take to proactively protect your identity:
- Only provide personal information when it's required. When you fill out a form at the dentist's office or on an online job application for example, you do not actually need to provide your Social Security number at that time. If it's required later to confirm your health insurance coverage or if the employer wants to do a background check because you are a top candidate for the position—then provide the number. Not before.
- To log into accounts, enable authentication questions as well as two-factor authentication when available. (Pro tip: Don't use real answers such as your mother's actual maiden name! The information is not cross-referenced so why give out such important and personal information? Make it up.)
Stack also recommends basic identity-protection maintenance such as checking your credit reports several times per year from all three credit bureaus for possible fraudulent accounts, changing your passwords if you think an account is compromised, and not using public WiFi for anything except just browsing the Internet.
"Having your personal information exposed can be a threat to your identity and financial future, but there are ways to take control," he says. "In a digital world, all of us are at some risk for identity theft and fraud. One additional step to get peace of mind is enrolling in an identity theft protection product so you are notified if credit is opened in your name or your personal data is on the dark web."
Also, check out Experian's free Dark Web Triple Scan, which searches thousands of dark web pages, networks and forums for your phone number, email address, and Social Security number. This lets you know if any of this information is on the dark web and then you can take additional steps to protect yourself (see above!).
Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are author's alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer or other company, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. All information, including rates and fees, are accurate as of the date of publication.