(TNS) — Identity theft used to be a complicated, hands-on racket that involved mail theft, dumpster diving, scam telephone calls and emailed offers.
But hackers, aided by improvements in computer technology and internet accessibility, have brought illicit new efficiency to the crime, stealing the personal information of thousands of people with a few keystrokes in large-scale data breaches, according to the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office.
The hackers then sell the information to eager criminals at low prices on the dark web, leaving victims wondering just where or how they may have left themselves exposed.
“You really can’t protect your information. All you can do is monitor it,” said Lt. Stanley Brown, commander of the Sheriff’s Office Economic Crimes Unit.
It’s a scary prospect for consumers: Your personal information is out there, and there’s not a lot you can do about it.
The Sheriff’s Office recently arrested Tyrone McPlatter, 31, of New Orleans, on numerous counts of bank fraud, computer fraud, identity theft and credit card fraud.
McPlatter was the main player in a group of scammers who created fraudulent accounts using “synthetic identifications” — identities created by combining stolen personal data such as Social Security numbers with fake information, the Sheriff’s Office said.
Brown said the group was buying the stolen data on the dark web. Investigators describe the dark web as a sleazy alleyway that can’t be accessed through normal web browsers such as Safari or Chrome. Visitors conduct criminal activity there, including drug deals.
“It’s a digital back alley,” Brown said.
Social Security numbers are sold for as little as $5 each, according to investigators. For $75, one can buy 25 credit card numbers, though there’s no guarantee that they’ll work. Depending on what a crook is willing to pay, there’s access to all sorts of information, including account logins and passwords, birth dates and the like.
Data thieves use skimmers to collect large amounts of credit card information, placing them on fuel pumps and ATMs or paying restaurant and store employees to swipe cards on handheld devices, Brown said.
But large-scale data breaches have become more of a concern. Hackers pull names, dates of birth, addresses, Social Security numbers, maiden names and other identifying information from companies. Data from hundreds of thousands of consumers were compromised in recent years in cyber attacks on businesses including Yahoo, Equifax, Target, Capital One and Marriott.
The recent ransomware attack that crippled Louisiana's state computer systems didn’t compromise any personal information, state officials said, but it showed that governments are also a target.
“It could be a person in Russia who’s doing the hack, who puts the information on the dark web,” Brown said. “Any person anywhere in the world who has access to the internet, with a little assistance, could get on the dark web and buy it.”
While there’s little you can do to prevent your personal data from ending up on the dark web or remove it, once it’s there you can limit the damage, investigators said.
Routinely check your bank and credit accounts for activity that appears fraudulent so that you can put a stop to it as soon as it occurs, Brown said. Also request a copy of your credit report every three months to check for any phony accounts opened in your name.
While improved technology has given cyber crooks a leg up, it’s also handed a few benefits to law enforcement agencies, investigators said. It’s now easier to track crimes and share information across jurisdictions.
That’s why it’s so important for identity theft victims to report the crime to law enforcement, Brown said.
“We look for patterns in the reports,” he said, explaining that a detective who notices several reports from one geographic area may go out and check for skimmers or other ties. “We want to look for the common points about where you’ve used your cards, and put those things together.”
Here's what experts say to do if your information is stolen:
Contact the fraud department with the bank, business or store and tell them that your information has been stolen. Ask them to close the fraudulent account and send you a letter confirming that the fraudulent account isn’t yours, you aren’t liable for it and it was removed from your credit report.
Change all logins and passwords.
Contact the three major credit bureaus and activate a free, one-year fraud alert. This makes it more difficult for anyone to open a new account in your name. The three bureaus are Experian (Experian.com/help, 888-397-3742), TransUnion (TransUnion.com/credit-help, 888-909-8872) and Equifax (Equifax.com/personal/credit-report-services, 800-685-1111).
Report the identity theft to the Federal Trade Commission, the government agency tasked with protecting consumers. You can make an online report at www.identitytheft.gov/Assistant# or call 1-877-438-4338.
Report the theft to your local law enforcement agency.
©2019 NOLA Media Group, New Orleans. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.