Identity Theft: Past, Present, and Future
Identity theft is not a new crime, but the way it takes shape changes almost daily. As new technology and new methods of attack crop up, consumers, advocates, law enforcement agencies, and policymakers have to work overtime to keep up.
The National Cybersecurity Alliance observes an important annual event each year in October, one that works to raise public awareness of the most current information in the fight against identity theft and data loss. National Cybersecurity Awareness Month is aimed at everyone—from the individual tech user to the Fortune 500 CEO—and offers insight, training, and tools to keep everyone’s data safe.
Part of the work of raising awareness stems from knowing how identity theft used to manifest, and understanding what it looks like today. When victims first began reporting identity theft decades ago, law enforcement and the courts were baffled by how to move forward. How do you prosecute someone for pretending to be someone else? How do you investigate a crime when there’s no name to attach to it other than the victims?
Identity thieves of old relied on tactics like dumpster diving for credit card offers and filling them in without the victim’s knowledge. Check washing was another common method of stealing from victims, after removing mail from the victim’s mailbox and changing the information on the check.
With the dawn of the internet and the digital toolbox it gave to hackers, the identity theft stakes were even higher. Macro-based email attacks that contained viruses in attachments quickly spread, and individuals and businesses alike were targeted with emailed attachments. Once word spread of the threat and once it became easy for anyone to generate a website link, hackers moved on to spreading viruses in malicious links through emails and text messages.
Of course, the rise in email use meant you didn’t have to be a highly-skilled techno hacker to steal identities. Emailed phishing scams like the infamous Nigerian prince emails meant anyone with a computer could try to trick someone out of their money, their identity, or both.
With the widespread awareness of those “old school” threats, hackers and scammers have had to adapt in order to reach new victims. In just the past few years, the industry has witnessed a shift in which thieves go after more permanent information like Social Security numbers and birthdates rather than temporary data like credit card numbers. As a result, citizens have had to buckle down on where they share their information, who is allowed to access it, and how it gets spread.
One current digital trend that has contributed to the rise in identity theft is the proliferation of smartphones and tablets. Most consumers now carry a mini computer with them at all times, meaning the ability to steal data and identities aren't limited to times when victims are sitting at a traditional desktop computer. There are now large numbers of consumers who report never using a traditional computer, so identity thieves have evolved to include mobile device options like malicious links in text messages, harmful websites that are mobile-optimized, and reaching out to potential victims through social media sites.
So where does that lead us as a society already under attack? The future of identity theft is unwritten, but there are a few certainties. First, it will take full advantage of the technology as it unrolls. We’ve already seen the potential for identity theft and data breaches through Internet of Things-connected “smart home” devices and the hacking of connected automobiles. The medical industry will also play a key role in prevention and victimization, as ransomware attacks against medical facilities will only increase due to their effectiveness. Finally, one of the quiet areas of identity theft so far has been the education sector, which has already suffered a share of data breaches but has yet to yield large-scale results for identity thieves.
Regardless of how the new wave of attacks on our information plays out, it’s important to understand that nothing ever really goes away when it comes to identity theft. The old ways are still just as viable as any future methods, and as consumers, we must be prepared to protect our sensitive information at every turn.
Anyone can be a victim of identity theft, anyone can use our services, and anyone can help us help others. If you found this information useful, please consider donating to the Identity Theft Resource Center to help us keep our services free to the public.