Criminals often steal personal-identity information because it’s worth money across the internet.
That’s one lesson learned by Kathy Fleming, 77, at a June seminar, Taking Charge of Your Digital Security, that AARP Washington held for about 200 people in Spokane Valley.
Although Fleming is careful when she uses her computer and guards her credit, she’s been the victim of identity theft.
“Your information is currency,” said Fleming, a local AARP chapter member. “I’ve been hit multiple times, but it never dawned on me that my information is a form of currency.
“That’s what it is for people who buy and sell it; they can sell a Social Security number and name for $3 on the dark web.”
The dark web is a part of the internet used for illegal transactions that’s not accessible to ordinary browsers.
DO A CREDIT FREEZE
Fleming said the seminar had two other take-aways: Do a credit freeze and use complex, varied passwords through a password manager service, which offers to generate and store a different password for each of a user’s online accounts.
A credit freeze, also known as a security freeze, lets consumers restrict access to a credit report among the three major reporting agencies. The step makes it more difficult for identity thieves to open new accounts because most creditors need to see a credit report before approval.
In recent years, Fleming said she was hit by personal-record data breaches at Target, Rosauers Supermarkets and the consumer credit reporting agency Experian.
About a year and a half ago, someone used PayPal to take $2,000 out of her checking account.
Her credit union quickly investigated. “The best part is I don’t have a PayPal account,” she said. “The credit union is insured, so I did get my $2,000 back.”
Another time, she got a call when someone in Las Vegas tried to buy a car using her credit. Another person had applied to get a credit card in her name from Victoria’s Secret.
“One of the best things I learned at the seminar is you don’t have to wait until you’re victimized and file the police report to do a credit freeze,” she said.
Thanks to a new law, applying for a credit freeze became free in Washington in June. Starting this fall, the big three credit reporting agencies — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion — will be required to let people freeze a credit file for free.
Congress mandated free freezes after consumer outrage over the Equifax breach last September exposing the personal information of more than 146 million Americans.
Doug Shadel, AARP state director, told seminar attendees that after placing a credit freeze, people can lift it if they need to buy a car or get a loan. However, they’ll need to provide the pin number given when the freeze was put in place.
MAKE PASSWORDS COMPLEX
Shadel also promotes using different, complex passwords and closely monitoring financial accounts. “Criminals are lazy,” he said. “Avoid being the low-hanging fruit.”
A Microsoft online safety and security expert, Jeff Lilleskare, told people at the seminar about fake pop-up screens, which can look like authentic security notices. Even clicking on an apparent red exit box can be risky, Lilleskare said. He suggested going to the computer browser to close pop-ups.
“No matter how much technology knowledge you have, you can be sucked into the moment,” he said. “Do your updates and let them happen automatically.”
Consumer-fraud experts recommend taking three major steps to protect personal information: Set up and monitor online banking and checking accounts often; freeze credit; and strengthen online passwords and privacy settings.
Nevertheless, a recent AARP survey showed Washington State consumers falling behind in protecting their digital identities.
The survey of Washington online users 18 and older showed a lack of awareness of online dangers. It found that 6 in 10 Washington adults failed a quiz testing their “Digital Identity IQ.”
Only 53 percent knew that purchasing ID theft monitoring services doesn’t prevent thieves from stealing identity. Most such services notify individuals if someone is attempting to open new credit in their name, but that doesn’t prevent it.
AARP said fewer than 14 percent of the adults overall reported having ordered a security freeze on their credit. Nearly half of respondents hadn’t set up online access to some or any of their bank or credit card accounts, citing fears their personal information will get stolen.
“It’s ironic and unfortunate that fear and mistrust of the internet is actually putting people in greater danger that their personal information will be stolen and used by ID thieves,” Shadel said. “Crooks have told us that people without online accounts are the perfect targets. It allows the criminals to set up online access themselves, and to even set passwords and identifying information locking people out of their own accounts.”