How Scam Artists Are Getting So Much Information on Us

Sep 13, 2019

With the rise of the dark web, hacking incidents, phishing scams and cybercrime-as-a-service, personal identifiable information and financial data has become a popular commodity for scammers who exploit it for their own personal use or sell it to vast criminal networks online. According to Experian, an individual’s medical records might fetch up to $1,000 on the black market, while a single social security number may be purchased for a dollar. What’s more, anyone with money can take part in a cyberattack with the sale of exploit kits that don’t require any particular technical background to use. On the other hand, our members in law enforcement could attest to the fact that plenty of criminals continue to obtain sensitive data using “old-fashioned” tactics independent of any organized criminal network online. To prevent your loved ones from letting their personal information fall into the wrong hands, make sure they stay alert to these facts:

Dumpster diving and mail fraud remain a popular activity for thieves: As MarketWatch cautions in “10 things scam artists won’t tell you,” snail mail is by no means dead, and scammers aren’t overlooking it either. Before tossing documents into the garbage, shred any that contain personal information such as financial statements, cancelled checks, pay stubs, utility bills, insurance renewals, health care records, etc. If you shred them at home, consider getting a micro-cut shredder that chops paper into confetti-like pieces that can’t be put back together, instead of using a basic, straight-cut shredder. According to MarketWatch, the paper cuttings created by a basic shredder amount to just a one-hour puzzle for some fraudsters. It’s also best to avoid leaving documents in your mailbox overnight and/or put a lock on your mailbox, and send confidential information using registered or certified mail, or priority shipping since it can be tracked.

Mail fraud comes in many forms: The Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC) warns of a popular scheme in which scammers complete a change of address form to redirect mail. Once the mail arrives, they may take advantage of credit card offers and other solicitations, use utilities in the victim’s name and even use the address to enroll their kids in the local school. As the IRTC explains, a major red flag that someone may have changed your address without your knowledge is mail that doesn’t arrive for three or more days. The organization also warns against taking too passive an approach to communication from a debt collector that you assume is an error. Instead, you should determine the reason they think you owe them the money, report suspicious activities to your financial institutions and verify that they have your correct contact information on file.

Tricksters keep an eye out for obituaries: While they don’t suggest that anyone forgo the opportunity to honor the dead, fraud experts from AARP warn consumers that obituaries can be an important source of information for con artists looking for vulnerable, grieving loved ones. Important details are often communicated in these notices, such as the names of family members, where you live, and as the ITRC points out, even the possibility that you might be about to receive an inheritance or life insurance policy.

Social media sites are prime hunting ground for identity thieves: While nighttime news programs are rife with stories of financial grifts and other crimes originating in social networking and online dating sites, plenty of otherwise private people still tend to overshare on social media. As frustrating and disconcerting as this can be for parents who are well aware of dangers to be found online, adults are also vulnerable to inadvertently divulging information to those who would use it for nefarious purposes. Not only can fraudsters compile user information and pictures to create a fake identity for themselves, but they may also use the data to carry out highly targeted scams. To limit your exposure, don’t respond to requests to join a network of someone you don’t know, avoid giving real-time updates on your whereabouts and vacation plans (always an invitation for thieves) and think twice before sharing personal details like your birthday. It’s also a good idea to use privacy settings that allow you to limit who can see your social media posts. MarketWatch recommends using these settings to determine the audience for separate areas of your profile and restricting older posts and photos. For more tips on protecting yourself and your family online, visit Reader’s Digest here.

Our data is already available for public consumption: Finally, it’s easy to forget that a significant amount of data on individuals is readily available through public records. This includes property information, census data, criminal histories, bankruptcies, marriage certificates, tax liens and more. And as AARP reminds us, it’s perfectly legal for marketers to compile this data, and sell it to whomever they like. If  interested in learning exactly which records are available to the public, and how and where they are maintained, visit

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