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BOOK REVIEW: How to safeguard yourself from scammers

May 12 2017 10:09
Ian Mann*

Swiped: How to Protect Yourself in a World Full of Scammers, Phishers, and Identity Thieves by Adam Levi

BEFORE I state the problem, you need to be aware of some facts: you are leaving a trail of breadcrumbs all over the internet.

Your ID number, or some seemingly harmless information such as your email address or your mother’s maiden name, gives a criminal just enough information about you to enable him (or her) to poke around your social media. From this he can get the sort of information that is requested in security questions, like where you’ve lived, what companies you’ve worked for, the names of your pets, and schools you attended.

“The pieces of your information puzzle are out there waiting for the wrong person with the right skills to piece together your digital “you” and use it to defraud you,” warns the author, Adam Levin. There is a very sophisticated internet underworld - “the dark market” - working away just to defraud you or your company.

And there are as many ways of gathering your personal information as there are databases and filing cabinets that store your information across government agencies, businesses and institutions.

In 2013, the giant international shopping chain Target had its data breached leading to the exposure of the financial and personal information of 100 million people. Home Depot, Adobe, JPMorgan Chase, eBay and more have also had the data of their clients, suppliers and staff stolen.

Anthem, the second largest healthcare insurer in the US, had its data system hacked in 2014, giving criminals access to unencrypted databases containing the sensitive personal information of some 80 million current and former policyholders and employees.

“Since 2005, more than a billion sensitive records with personally identifiable information have been leaked,” Levin reports.

Pause and consider the effect on you and your family if some very smart criminals had your ID, credit cards and other very personal details.

Metadata has many uses. Credit card issuers use it to prevent thieves from using stolen credit cards by alerts when something doesn’t match our purchasing history. (Remember the call from the credit card company asking if you bought clothes and jewellery in Vladivostok?)

Consider how many places have your data, given over freely and trustingly - the hospital, stores, government offices, hotels, and on. Data in these repositories are not safe, and metadata used across sources can give criminals ‘fulz’ - the dark market term for a complete, useable identity.

Be careful what you put on social media

Social media posts can “get you got”, Levin notes. Real-time pictures on vacation are an invitation to burglars to rob your home. Announcements of upcoming trips give them time for preparation. Birthdays and other important anniversaries fill out your personal identity as do the more obvious photos of new passports, driver’s licences, your first debit card, and other identifying documents.

So, what is the worst that could happen? They stole your credit card and ran up a bill which the credit card company covered anyway? If only… The worst is the theft of your identity.

ID theft isn’t new, it is as old as the Bible. In Genesis, Jacob covered himself with goatskins and impersonated his brother, Esau, to trick their father into giving him the blessing of the firstborn, and all the family property. A thousand years ago, you could become almost anyone you wanted to be simply by claiming to be that person, but this was rare when people tended to stay in the general area where they were born, and lived among a small group of people.

Today, armed with enough information a person can go online and become almost anyone they want, simply by typing in the right information.

Perhaps it is when you were buying a car or trying to refinance your house, that you learned that your credit score was too low to qualify. Or your visa is denied, or passport cloned by a criminal or terrorist through an accurate impersonation of your digital persona.

You might just have destroyed your financial credibility through the things you shared on Twitter or Facebook.

Our most sensitive personally identifiable information is already in the wrong hands, so many know so much about you. The breadcrumb trail can lead to you becoming the victims of serious, and sometimes prolonged, fraud.

“You’re going to get got,” Levin promises. The chances that you are reading this article out of sheer curiosity, having never been a victim of some form of identity-related crime, are declining by the minute. The only reason everyone hasn’t become a victim is that the bad guys just haven’t gotten around to them yet.

So what should we do?

What is there you can do about this? There is no solution; there are only best practices and knowledge. “I call my strategy the Three Ms: Minimize your exposure, Monitor your accounts, Manage the damage,” Levin explains.

You can minimise your exposure and help yourself by not using social media to broadcast your purchases, your location, or other identifying facts. It pays to be paranoid in this regard. Don’t share too much information with people you don’t know - whether in person, on the phone, or online via social media.

Make sure that you set long and strong passwords. Change them regularly, and don’t use the same one for different purposes.

Monitor your accounts regularly, not quarterly, and check your credit status. Find out what you will need to do if your identity is breached, and how you will survive until it is corrected.

Reality check: hackers will always attack the weakest link. If people wealthier than you or companies larger than yours are taking more protection, hackers are just going to go after easier targets, like you and your small business.

“If there’s a thief in the neighbourhood,” Levin points out, “they’ll look for the house with no guard dog.”

Readability:  Light +---- Serious
Insight:        High -+--- Low
Practical:      High +---- Low

* Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy and is the author of Executive Update. Views expressed are his own.

ian mann  |  opinion  |  book reviews
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