Layman's Perspective: Happy New Year! Now Meet Your Cyber-Doom

Digital Identity Theft   

After some abatement in 2018, identity theft is on the rise again, in part because of how much of our business we now conduct online. In 2019, 3.2 million reports of identity theft were filed, and losses claimed as a result of the crime, according to the Federal Trade Commission, came to 1.9 billion dollars. A week into 2021, it would appear you have two ways of life to choose from:

  1. You renounce the online world. You buy in cash, or better yet, beaver pelts. You use a false name in dealings with everyone except family. Immediate family. Your cousins have always been shifty. You neither possess yourself, nor place calls to anyone possessing, a smart phone, and what few calls you do place you place in disguise and with your voice modulated from an airport 80 miles away that still has pay phones. As the stock of your beaver farm retreat to their burrows at sundown, you survey your land, comforted by the impenetrab—WAIT, WHAT WAS THAT?! WHAT WAS THAT NOISE?!                                                                                              
  2. You embrace your vulnerability; you embrace that you are just a big, squishy, defenseless target of digital identity theft and other cybercrime. “Hello, world!” you say, walking out the door in the morning as auspiciously as a tomato rolling into traffic. “Would you like to know my Social Security number? It’s 523…”

Perhaps there is a choice between those two. We’ll come back to that. In any case we must accept beforehand that identity theft follows online populations and subsists on information they leave behind. So, for example, if people migrate to Venmo for the convenience of transferring money digitally between private parties as well as, apparently, some satisfaction to be had from proclaiming HEY GUYS I JUST PAID JOHNNY FOR UTILITIES! JOHNNY PAYS THE UTILITIES ON MY BEHALF LOL SO THAT’S HOW COME I JUST PAID HIM HERE, SEE? GUYS?, then identity thieves will migrate to that platform too, exploiting whatever weaknesses they can find in it. There are always weaknesses to find, and this example is in fact what is happening.

Swim for Your Lives!

Meanwhile, the traces we the online community leave are less and less trace-like and more and more like Disney World for cybercriminals. It turns out there are hidden costs in not wanting to put on pants and leave the house to buy things. Over the past decade, data breaches at major retailers have exposed in various detail countless identities now for sale on the dark web (no, I don’t know what the dark web is either—maybe it has to do with Incognito Mode?); the risk to each person who has been exposed seems to correspond more or less to how much wealth might be stolen from them. We have become, at the dawn of this new year, a school of small fish, hoping our predators will be so dizzied by our swirling abundance that they end up taking a nap and not eating any of us. And what can we possibly do to fix it now? Go back to putting on pants!?

Maybe Not So Bad

Strong though the temptation is these days to see everything as a calamity about to destroy us all, the growth of digital identity theft may also be interpreted as simply an occasion to change with the times. Crime evolving in any direction demands a response, and this is no different. A few habits can greatly reduce the evidence of your digital life available to hackers: first, use strong passwords that you change regularly and don’t repeat on different sites (yes, yes, it’s the worst, do it anyway); second, use malware protection that you keep up to date; third, for the most security you can get without going full beaver farm, use a VPN, which one surmises is a sort of computer thing that you can, like, use. With those defenses in place, and a spirit of as much optimism as you can muster, you stand a fine shot of getting through 2021 with your identity intact. Roll on, brave tomato! Happy New Year!


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