Identity theft is a real and growing threat. And yet, an alarming number of people are putting themselves at risk by not taking simple precautions to guard their personal information.
About 28 million Americans, 12 percent of the adults in this country, were victims of identity theft in the past 12 months, according to a new AARP report, Identity Theft: Who’s at Risk? The nationwide survey also found that:
- 59 percent do not have a locking mailbox to prevent mail theft
- 21 percent never shred personal documents that could be used to steal their identity
- 54 percent of those aged 18-49 left at least one valuable item in their car, such as a purse or wallet, pay stub or laptop, during the last week
Doug Shadel, a fraud prevention expert with AARP’s Fraud Watch Network, can’t understand why so many people are so nonchalant about this crime.
Shadel just wrote an in-depth article for AARP, She Stole My Life, about the time he spent with “Alice,” an identity thief who showed him how easy it was to get the personal information she needed to do her dirty work.
Alice and her crew would break into cars parked at the mall and look for laptops left inside. They’d hit gym parking lots, well aware that a lot of people leave their wallets in the glove box or under the seat during their workouts. And they’d go through the mail in unlocked mailboxes, looking for bank statements, credit card offers or other financial information to steal.
“These ID thieves are very brazen,” Shadel told TODAY. “The fact that you live in a supposedly safe neighborhood doesn't stop them.”
With all the news coverage about big data breaches, it’s easy to forget that identity thieves still get what they want the old-fashioned way – going through the trash, stealing mail and breaking into cars.
“It doesn’t matter how they get your personal information, whether they hack into a database or steal a letter from your mailbox or grab a financial document from your garbage, the damage they can do is going to be the same,” said Eva Velasquez, president and CEO of the non-profit Identity Theft Resource Center in San Diego.
Another alarming finding
Technology is now fueling the rise in identity theft, and yet the AARP survey found that many Americans are even less prepared for these high-tech attacks.
“One of the most shocking findings was that more than one-third of all Americans do not have a pass code on their smartphones,” Shadel said. “All of these people are vulnerable to identity theft because if a thief steals that phone, they have access to all of your stuff – especially if the phone syncs automatically to your accounts.”
The survey also found that:
- More than one in three (35 percent) adults surveyed have not set up online access to all of their bank and credit accounts. Checking these accounts on a regular basis – weekly, if not daily – is one of the best ways to quickly spot financial fraud.
- Nearly half (45 percent) use the same password on two or more accounts. If that password is compromised in some way, it gives the crooks the key to multiple accounts and the ability to do more damage.
- Almost half (49 percent) have not changed the password on their online bank account in the past six months. This proactive step will block a thief who somehow gets your password. Change it and it’s useless.
There’s really nothing any of us can do about the seemingly endless number of data breaches taking place at big retailers, but you can probably do more to reduce your vulnerability to a personal hack attack.
“Hackers look for unlocked doors and millions of Americans are leaving their doors unlocked,” said Adam Benson, deputy executive director of the Digital Citizens Alliance. “When you take the proper security precautions, it’s like locking the door to your house.”
Taking some basic digital security precautions won’t protect you from everything, but it will stop a lot of the low-level hackers who will simply move on to an easier target, Benson said.
As part of National Cyber Security Awareness Month, the Digital Citizens Alliance and Blackfin Security have created a Personal Threat Assessment quiz (just 10 questions) that can help you determine if your devices and data are secure.