In the post-apocalyptic world of “The Walking Dead,” it’s a foregone conclusion that zombies happen, and they aren’t picky. One real-world parallel of finding yourself surrounded by hungry zombies is the plague of identity theft. With more than 1 billion records “out there,” it’s just a matter of time before you get got.
When it comes to identity theft, people have many questions and few answers. Should I shred sensitive documents? (Yes.) Is it worse to lose a wallet, a smartphone, or a computer? (It depends on how much sensitive information they contain.) Does it really matter if all of the logins and passwords for my online accounts are the same? (Yes, it really does.) How common is identity theft? (Very.) What are my chances of being defrauded by identity thieves? (The odds are ever in their favor.) Is there anything I can do to avoid becoming a victim? (No.)
Identity theft is the worst kind of dumb luck. You can do a number of things to keep it from ruining your life, but there isn’t much you can do to stop it from happening to you. Identity thieves are like coyotes (or zombies): They wander around looking for scraps (or surviving humans). They take whatever they can find. They are opportunists.
The proposition that you will be able to fence off your property and maintain a completely buttoned-up, coyote- (or zombie-) free life while remaining on high alert 24/7 is a pipedream. When the bad guys of Scamville pad your way, there’s not much you can do about it. You can hope they don’t find a way into your personal finances, or that your information camouflage is failsafe, but no one is that good or that lucky all the time.
As Hunter S. Thompson wrote in Fear and Loathing in America, “Luck is a very thin wire between survival and disaster, and not many people can keep their balance on it.” If I can persuade you of nothing else, let me convince you that everyone gets got. If you believe this, or you’ve already been the victim of an identity-related crime, my hope is that you’ll find what you are looking for in my new book, "Swiped: How to Protect Yourself in a World Full of Scammers, Phishers, and Identity Thieves."
With very few outlier exceptions, we’ve all been swiped, scanned, digitized, filed and disseminated to such a staggering extent that it’s impossible to know where our information is and who’s had access to it.
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Unless you live in a log cabin on Loon Lake and do all your business in cash or kind, you’re gettable. If you’ve ever seen a doctor, or if you’ve ever registered for classes at an institution of higher learning, you’re already in the crosshairs of countless identity snipers. If you’ve ever provided personal information via email, you may be in jeopardy. If you’ve ever swiped a credit card through a card reader, your chances of being given the gift that keeps on taking are only getting better. If you gave your ZIP code, email address or telephone number at the cash register of any store you’ve ever shopped in, you’re a target. Every time you roll out of bed, you’re entering the identity theft lottery.
If you remember every single retailer, medical provider, financial institution, or government agency that has ever collected, stored and disseminated your personally identifiable information, and you have time to talk to each of those places about data security you might not need to learn more about the problem. If you’re anything like me, you have no idea where your data is, how (or even if) it’s being warehoused or how long it will be there (wherever “there” happens to be). And, like me, you’re already a target. That’s the point. We all are.
When it comes to identity theft, cyberattacks, and successful hacks, the difference between those of us who are aware and prepared for identity theft and the rest of the world is not terribly big, but it’s nonetheless a crucial one: We use common sense. We don’t think we are invincible, and we’re pretty sure that it’s only a matter of time before we get entangled in a cyberattack. In fact, we assume something is going to go terribly wrong, and we’ve made it our habit to look for it. The fact that we’ve swiped our credit cards, debit cards, identity cards, and work badges means we’re vulnerable to having our personal information swiped and used for all kinds of things. There is one thing that separates us from those who hope that they’ll somehow slip the noose of identity theft because, for some magical reason, it will never happen to them: We approach our personal information and the threat of identity theft in a spirit of preparedness. We are as ready as anyone can be for the worst that can (and most likely will) come our way.
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The other day, a reporter asked me who’s to blame for the growing epidemic of identity-related tax fraud. I could have answered, “the bad guys”—the identity thieves who devote their days to hacking people’s accounts and putting their personal information to profitable use. Or I could have said it was the government, which is so overwhelmed by the information security problem that it can’t even keep the NSA safe from breaches, never mind the rest of us. But I chose a third answer.
“We’re all to blame,” I said. And I truly believe it. When it comes to any identity-related crime, the buck stops with you and me, because we’re the only ones who can know what’s what in time to stop from getting hurt, or at least to move quickly enough to contain the damage.
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Breaches, and the identity theft that flows from them, have become the third certainty in life, right behind death and taxes. Your introduction to the fact that you got “got” can take many forms. It may be a call from a debt collector, or the flashing lights of a police car as you are pulled over for missing a stop sign, only to find yourself handcuffed and cooling your heels in jail because someone stole your identity and used it in the commission of a crime. Whatever it is, like a horde of zombies, you’re far better off if you can see it coming.
The above is an adapted excerpt from "Swiped: How to Protect Yourself in a World Full of Scammers, Phishers and Identity Thieves," which hits bookstores everywhere Black Friday.
Any opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author.
Adam Levin is chairman and co-founder of Credit.com and IDT911. His experience as former director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs gives him unique insight into consumer privacy, legislation and financial advocacy. He is a nationally recognized expert on identity theft and credit. His new book, "SWIPED: How to Protect Yourself in a World Full of Scammers, Phishers, and Identity Thieves" will be released this fall.