Imagine seeing a man walking down the street, wearing a raincoat, with information printed on the back – that included his name, birth date, mother’s maiden name, email address, medical record number and a listing of his social media accounts information and passwords, along with other personal data. You watch in horror as someone runs up to him, rips his coat off and runs away.
What just happened was all his personally identifiable information was stolen, and it happens online as well. Cybercriminals were especially busy in 2020, when almost 1.4 million identity theft cases were reported to the FTC, which is triple the amount reported in 2018. The theft of personally identifiable information, also known as PII, leads to various forms of identity theft, including synthetic identity theft, medical identity theft, financial identity theft, and many others. The damage that it can cause is devastating, and everything a person can do to protect their PII is critically important.
Protecting Your PII
So, what is PII? Remember all that data described above on the back of the raincoat, like birth date, name, email address, mother’s maiden name, cell phone numbers, and other info? That’s the kind of PII that the cyberthieves are looking for. They’re looking for more, like Social Security numbers, but they’ll take the information that’s available to them and then use it to find more sensitive info, like tax ID numbers, SSN, driver’s license numbers, and other key data – the kind that grants them access to all of your financial records and more.
Where do cybercrooks get your personally identifiable information? It can come from something as simple as losing your wallet which cybercrooks love to find, or it can come from data breaches at major sites that store your PII, or they may hack your computer if you’re not using a strong password. Other ways cybercrooks get your PII is from people-search sites, unsecured WiFi connections you may use, phishing emails and scam phone calls among many other avenues that are being used right now. Never click on an embedded email link unless you’re 100% sure you know the person sending the email. Otherwise, you could end up with malware or ransomware in your computer and it will be a costly journey to undo the damage.
Protecting your PII is the key to preventing identity theft, so it’s good to know how the cyber thieves get your information in order to protect it. For example, if you use public WiFi – as most people do, use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to log onto the Internet. Some of the top ones include NordVPN, SurfShark and ExpressVPN.
Because cyberthieves love going to people-search sites like Pipl, US Search and Whitepages, you need to opt out and delete all of the unauthorized information that’s stored about you. There are more than 100 of these sites, and unfortunately, each one has their own rules and methods for deleting information, so it could take some time and effort to erase the records.
Because synthetic identity fraud is escalating at an incredible pace, you must be aware of it and how it can impact you personally. For example, a cybercrook can get some personal information about you from one of the people-search sites, then add made-up addresses, names and other metrics to the initial information to create a completely new persona – a synthetic one that really never existed. The problem is some of your real information is contained within the fraud, so it’s your name and credit that could be damaged.
Always use a strong password, which according to cybersecurity experts is 12 characters long and includes letters, numbers and symbols. Use a different password for each one of your accounts – whether it’s social media, online accounts or financial accounts. This can get quite time-consuming and trying to remember multiple 12-character passwords can be daunting. Instead, use a password manager like NordPass, DashLane and 1Password among many others.
Why Protecting Your PII is so Important
Once a cybercrook has your personally identifiable information, the damage they can do to you can be devastating. For example, they’ll access your bank accounts to steal your funds, take over your account, apply for credit accounts in your name or a combination of your name and other information and do serious damage to your credit.
Many cybercrooks use the information to steal tax refunds and file fraudulent tax returns. In addition, many are now committing medical identity theft in order to fraudulently obtain prescriptions and medical procedures, with no intention of ever paying for these services. It’s sad that cybercriminals are doing this and cheating the government out of funds, but what’s worse is that it can seriously damage your credit rating.
One recommendation is to continuously check your credit bureau reports to ensure that no fraudulent charges are appearing on anything that has your name associated with it. If necessary, contact one of the major credit reporting agencies, including TransUnion, Experian or Equifax. They’ll report it to the other two. Also, you’re entitled to a free annual credit report, so review yours to make sure nobody is adding fraudulent charges using your name and information.
Finally, always store any personally identifiable information you keep at home or in an office in a secure place, such as a safe, for example. Keeping this information from a cybercrook or thief is the only way you’ll be able to protect yourself from identity theft of all types.
By following the information and suggestions listed above, you’ll be protecting your PII online and keeping your identity safe from cybercrooks.