According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), identity theft has been the top consumer complaint for 15 consecutive years.
Unfortunately, as the digital age unfolds, hackers and cybercriminals are developing more sophisticated ways to gain access to the personal information of victims, and identity theft has become an even larger problem.
The FTC logged 2.6 million identity theft complaints in 2014, up from only 2.1 million complaints in 2012. In addition, there were 1,540 global data breaches in 2014, up a staggering 46% over 2013’s total. Of these breaches, malicious outsiders or insiders were the culprits in 70% of the cases.
Big-name victims of data breaches in recent years include eBay, Home Depot and JP Morgan Chase. In those three breaches alone, a combined 337 million records were accessed.
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One of the fastest-growing segments of identity theft is credit card fraud. There were 31.8 million U.S. credit card breaches in 2014, more than three times the number of breaches reported in 2013.
Show me the money
The large majority of identity thefts are financially motivated, but there is a major imbalance between the market value of stolen data and the ultimate financial impact on the victim. Of the 600 stolen personal data listings on the Dark Web ranging from credit card numbers to Social Security numbers to addresses, employer information, income reports and driver’s license numbers, the average asking price for stolen data is only $20.
Stolen medical records recently sold for as little as $6.40 apiece, and stolen PayPal and eBay account information sells for as little as $2.
While the payoff for criminals may be relatively modest, the victims of identity fraud typically suffer a devastating financial blow. The United States Department of Justice estimates that identity theft victims typically average losses of nearly $5,000 dollars. In addition to the monetary losses, the time and emotional distress involved in sorting out the aftermath of identity theft also takes its toll on victims.
Children aren’t safe
Unfortunately, not even children and teens are safe from identity thieves. Just because a child may not have any significant financial assets doesn’t mean that their identity is not valuable to criminals.
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The naivety of children and teens make them easy targets for criminals. If identity thieves can gain access to the social security number and other financial information of children, they can use that information to fraudulently open credit card accounts or apply for loans.
One of the worst parts about these child-targeted ID thefts is that they can go undetected for years until the child applies for his or her first credit card or student loan.
How to fight back
Fortunately, there are plenty of identity theft protection services available for an average price of only $18 per month. However, if you are concerned with the growing threat of identity theft but are unwilling or unable to pay for a protection service at this time, there are still several steps you can take to protect yourself:
- Only give out your social security number when absolutely necessary and don’t carry your social security card in a purse or wallet.
- Don’t respond to unsolicited phone, mail or online requests for personal information.
- Collect mail promptly and have it held at the post office during vacations.
- Shred documents containing personal information prior to trashing them.
- Make sure all important passwords are long, complex and difficult to guess.
These five simple steps certainly don’t guarantee that your identity is secure, but they are an easy and effective way to begin fighting back against identity thieves. If the latest numbers are any indication, the stolen personal data market is larger than ever, and the threat of identity theft is not going away anytime soon.