Identity Theft and Social Media: How Are They Related?

Social media: two words that have become synonymous with how we connect ourselves to our fellow humans in the 21st century.

Relationships can be formed and broken all inside a virtual world. We post pictures of our children, food, likes and dislikes for the world to see. While this technical revolution of the past decade can be viewed as exciting and innovative, it also leaves us vulnerable, particularly to identity theft.

What Is Identity Theft?

According to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), identity theft “occurs when someone appropriates another’s personal information without their knowledge to commit theft or fraud.”

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reported that debt collection, identity theft and impostor scams were the most common categories of consumer complaints received by the agency’s Consumer Sentinel Network in 2015. Identity theft complaints were the second most reported, increasing more than 47 percent from 2014, in part due to tax identity theft. Per the FTC, impostor scams — in which criminals impersonate someone else to commit fraud — remained the third most common complaint in 2015.

A Tale as Old as Time

Identity theft is not new. It is a tale as old as time, from biblical stories of one brother posing as another to receive their dying father’s inheritance to fraudsters who pose as someone else to gain trust and disclose personally identifiable information.

In the fall of 1998, Congress passed the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act. This legislation created a new offense for identity theft, which prohibits “transfers or uses, without lawful authority, [of] a means of identification of another person with the intent to commit, or to aid or abet, any unlawful activity that constitutes a violation of federal law or that constitutes a felony under any applicable state or local law.”

The Identity Theft Resource Center, a San Diego-based nonprofit organization founded to provide victim assistance and consumer education, reported that the use of some social media sites can leave you vulnerable to identity theft if not used properly.

What Is Social Media?

Social media sites function on the personal information users provide. This can expose the consumer to fraud and abuse. If your mobile banking app is on your phone, for instance, cybercriminals can access your online banking information through an app that is unrelated to your online banking.

What you post online for friends, family and the internet to see can also leave you vulnerable. For instance, when you post that you are going on vacation, you alert potential burglars that you are away.

Accepting “connections” or “friendships” with people you are not somehow familiar with in your everyday life can put you at risk. Cybercriminals can guess your passwords simply by the items you post online, such as your pets’ names, children’s names or details regarding your former schools or current city.

A Playground for Cybercriminals

The unregulated nature of social media platforms provides cybercriminals and fraudsters a veritable playground of criminal activity to choose from.

If you accept an invitation from unfamiliar people and they send you an email with a link in the text, this may be an attempt to place malicious malware on your computer. This would allow attackers to extract your personal information, particularly online banking information.

Not only can fraudsters take over bank accounts via online messaging, but consumers should be wary of impostors creating fake accounts in their name and posting messages under their ID. Celebrities are especially vulnerable to this trend.

Back in 2011, for example, former governor of Alaska Sarah Palin’s official Twitter account was breached and exposed to fraud. In one incident, a fraudster tweeted an open invite to Palin’s family home for a barbecue. Palin’s security staff had to be dispatched to her Alaska residence. Many public figures have fallen victim to this method of identity theft.

Protect Your Identity

Below are some tips to protect your identity in the age of social media:

  • Create strong, multicharacter passwords for your email and all apps on your phone, and remember to change them often.
  • When utilizing apps, enter as little personal information as possible.
  • Be cautious about what you post online. Never use personal information such as your Social Security number, current address or telephone number.
  • Make sure your privacy settings are set to the highest level. Check these settings often since they may be affected by upgrades.
  • Avoid downloading free applications for use on your social media profiles.
  • Avoid accepting connections or friendships with people you are not familiar with.
  • Verify any link sent to you was sent from your connection or friend.
  • Google your own name, as well as any social media handles you utilize, to track any possible forged accounts.
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Erin O'Loughlin

Financial Crimes Intelligence SME, IBM

Erin O'Loughlin joined IBM in May 2016 as a Financial Crimes Intelligence Subject Matter Expert Consultant within Red Cell team. Prior to joining IBM she served from 2011 to 2016 within Bank of America’s Global Financial Crimes and Compliance Division working in both fraud and anti-money laundering (AML) divisions. Erin ended her Bank of America career as a Senior AML investigator within the “terrorist financing” group. Prior to joining Bank of America, Erin spent ten years serving as an operations officer in the Intelligence Community for the United States Government. Erin served as an operations officer in several critical posts in the Middle East as well as extensive travel in Africa, Eastern Europe, and Southeast Asia.