WASHINGTON, October 1, 2013 – The Internet has, without a doubt, made the world seem like a smaller, more connected place. You can use it to talk to someone halfway around the world or shop without even having to leave your house, among many other things. You can even make important financial transactions while sitting at home in your underwear, if you want. It’s like magic.
The thing about technology, though, is that some individuals will eventually find a way to use it for their own less than honest purposes. The web can be a dangerous place for the unwary. Even something as fun and commonplace as social networking can be used by unscrupulous individuals to victimize the unprepared.
Identity thieves, who are already a big problem offline, have since turned online identity theft into a large part of their fraudulent activities. Phishing scams and WiFi sniffing are just two of the many techniques an identity thief can use to acquire a stolen identity. Hackers can even break into an unprotected computer from halfway across the world.
Speaking of hackers, another weapon in the modern identity thieves’ arsenal is database hacking. A successful hacking attempt can turn a database into a big score for an identity thief, since the stolen identities can either be used by the hacker himself or sold to other criminal organizations.
Online password theft and data breaches have seen a steady increase over the past few years. Around 12 million pieces of personal information were estimated to have been stolen and sold in 2012 alone. While 90% of that data is believed to consist of login details and passwords instead of Social Security numbers and the like, an enterprising criminal can use these details to gain access to even more important information.
Those whose identities were compromised due to a data breach may not even know about it until it’s too late. Most data breaches take months or even years to be noticed. Even worse, a shockingly small number are detected by the target itself.
There have already been dozens of major data breaches this year. These include LivingSocial, LinkedIn, Twitter, eHarmony, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times. Not even government institutions are completely safe from this kind of breach. The Washington State Administrative Office of the Courts was hacked sometime between Fall 2012 and February 2013. It wasn’t until April that a breach was confirmed.
Bad news, right? It gets worse. Reports suggest that up to 160,000 Social Security numbers and a million driver’s license numbers may have been compromised due to the attack. A stolen Social Security number lets an identity thief apply for credit cards in your name and leave you stuck clearing up the bills. Such theives can even get a job using your personal information. Suffice to say, it’s one of those things that you should always keep safe.
Washington Courts spokeswoman Wendy Ferrel said they believe only 94 Social Security numbers were actually obtained by the perpetrators. The affected persons are being contacted through the mail. But what about the other potential victims? If you live in Washington state, your personal information may have been accessed if you happen to fall into any of the following categories.
According to court officials, those who were booked into a city or county jail within the state of Washington between September 2011 and December 2012 may have had their names and Social Security number accessed. Additionally, the names and driver’s license numbers of those who either received a DUI citation in Washington state between 1989 through 2011, had a traffic case in Washington filed or resolved in a district or municipal court between 2011 and 2012, or had a superior court criminal case in Washington state that was filed against them or resolved between 2011 and 2012 may have been accessed as well.
Even if you don’t fall into any of the above categories, it is always a good idea to take steps against any future identity theft attempts. Yes, even if you live nowhere near Washington state. After all, identity theft can happen to anyone.
Here are a few tips on keeping your personal information safe and your finances secure:
Enrolling your credit cards in a credit monitoring service is a good start. This way you can be informed right away if a potentially fraudulent transaction is made using your credit card and take steps to stop it. You should also make sure to check your credit reports on a regular basis. Remember that each of the three main credit bureaus may use different information to build your credit report, so it may vary from one bureau to the next. Therefore, you should check all three credit reports regularly.
Naturally we all hope that companies and government institutions are protecting our information from unauthorized access. But as you can see that doesn’t always happen and it doesn’t mean we can grow complacent.
Protect your computer and yourself with a good antivirus and anti-malware program as well as a firewall. You should also make sure not to click on any link found in unsolicited emails. That link you believe is for a funny video may actually lead you to a phishing site or infect your computer with malware.
The most important thing to remember is to always be vigilant when it comes to protecting your personal information. This may seem like a lot of work, but it is a lot easier than rebuilding your life after your identity is stolen.
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