It starts when you’re born. Within a day, hospital personnel are in your mother’s room asking for information about you: your name, address, mother’s maiden name, father’s name and occupation, well, the list goes on and on. You’re not even 24-hours old and someone is beginning to compile your personally identifiable information! It will be stored online, retrieved and updated as needed, and will follow you for the rest of your life. Along the way, additional data will be added, of course, until your personally identifiable information (PII) is complete.
While all this is happening, something else is going on: cybercriminals are searching for your PII, because they always need a new victim. They need pieces of your personally identifiable information so they can put them together in order to access even more data about you, until they hit the jackpot – your Social Security number.
That’s when they make their move – and commit some type of identity theft. Whether it’s synthetic identity theft that combines some of your personal data with made-up information, medical identity theft to gain access to medications and procedures using your data, or regular identity theft so they can commit all types of fraud and financial theft – you could easily become the next victim. That’s why it’s critically important to protect your personally identifiable information.
What PII is important to protect? The short answer is “all.” But, you should be particularly careful with your bank account information, personal phone numbers, email addresses and date of birth. Each item by itself isn’t that sensitive, but when a cybercriminal starts putting various elements together, they are dangerously close to stealing your identity.
Some Jaw-Dropping Numbers to View
If you think that you can’t become a victim of identity theft, think again. There’s a new identity theft every 2 seconds. That adds up to a lot of victims in the U.S., 33% of adults were victims of some type of identity theft. One in four adults over 55 were victims of identity theft, and in one year over 1 million children were victims as well, which cost their families $540 million in out-of-pocket expenses alone. In terms of cost, in 2020 consumers lost $56 billion to fraud and identity theft. That’s a lot of money, so you can see why protecting your personally identifiable information is so important.
Protecting Your PII
In order to commit any type of identity theft or fraud, a cybercrook needs to get hold of some of your personally identifiable information. The most common way they access it is through a data breach, which happens over 65% of the time. Hacking into your computer is another way that cybercrooks steal your PII. One of the biggest ways they access your data is through weak passwords. Cyber experts state that a strong password is 12 characters in length, and includes characters, numbers and symbols. Plus, they recommend a new password for every single one of your online accounts.
That would be hard to manage, so most people use password managers like Dashlane, LastPass and 1Password. They’ll create and manage all of your passwords for you.
Something else to consider – if you use public Wi-Fi, you’re at risk of having your data stolen. Sitting in an airport or coffee shop and using their Wi-Fi system will open the door to cybercrooks, who can easily see all your online activity – including passwords. The safe way to go is a Virtual Private Network (VPN), which hides your activity. Some of the top ones include SurfShark, ExpressVPN and IPVanish. It’s always better to be safe than sorry!
Because cybercriminals make people-search sites one of the first places to look for personal data, it’s best to delete your information and opt out. There are more than 100 people-search sites, US Search and PeopleFinders to name a few. Each one has their own rules and requirements for deleting data and opting out, so be careful to read the instructions for every site.
Also, beware of email phishing and robocall scams, where the cybercrook embeds links inside emails and requests you to click on the link to verify “important information.” Once you click, they can download malware to your computer and easily steal your data. Robocalls can be spoofed so the Caller ID shows up as an important name and number, one you’d normally open. The same issue occurs if you’re asked to verify data or punch in numbers which end up revealing your personal information.
Other Steps to Take
Protecting your personally identifiable information is vitally important, so there are other steps you can take to make sure your data is safe. For example, every time you open an account you’re asked if you want to enable two-step authentication. Most people ignore this option or click “no,” but it’s one of the best ways to protect your data. When enabled, you’re usually texted a code to verify that it’s you, and a cybercrook would have to be in the same room you’re in to obtain your personal code, so it’s simply not possible for them to gain access to it.
By following the news on different types of cyber scams, you’ll have an advantage over the cybercrooks who are spending all of their time figuring out new ways to steal your personal information. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) publishes online scam alerts, so it’s smart to check their online information from time to time in order to stay on top of the latest scams.
Other logical steps include monitoring your bank accounts for any suspicious activity, and periodically reviewing your credit reports to make sure no new accounts were opened in your name that you weren’t aware of. You can get one free online credit report annually using the FTC portal. If you see anything unfamiliar, put a credit freeze on your account to ensure that a cybercriminal isn’t using your name as part of synthetic identity fraud.