Despite an increasing focus on the importance of cybersecurity, organizations continue to lose consumer data to hackers and data breaches on a regular basis. It’s a widespread problem that will likely continue to grow and leave you vulnerable to fraud and identity theft.
While you may know the basics of keeping yourself protected (not sharing your credit card number, only shopping at reputable retailers, etc.), you might not be aware of a dark corner of the Internet that poses a serious threat to your credit and financial security.
It’s called the dark web, and it traffics in stolen consumer information.
The Dark Web
Typical Internet users only visit the visible web and the deep web. The visible web is made up of publicly available websites that are indexed and searchable by search engines like Yahoo and Google. The deep web isn’t searchable and is protected by firewalls, but you probably use it all the time; think workplace intranets, online databases, and privately stored documents.
The dark web, on the other hand, is made up of websites that the average web user will never see. These sites can’t be found by normal search engines, and they use encryption tools to disguise their identity. Users that visit these sites use IP-masking software to hide their location and identity as well.
While there are many legitimate and legal reasons to use the dark web, that anonymity also offers protection for all sorts of criminal activity. Online marketplaces use the dark web to traffic in stolen goods, drugs, weapons, and other illegal material. One 2015 study estimated that the dark web accounts for over $100 million in illegal drug sales per year.
Avoiding these illegal marketplaces is easy, but that doesn’t protect you from fraud and identity theft.
How the Dark Web Threatens Consumers
Stolen data is one of the hottest commodities on the dark web. Following a data breach, hackers might sell credit card numbers, bank accounts, Social Security numbers, and other personal data on a dark web marketplace. Most notably, the recent Equifax data breach compromised the names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, and other personal information of 143 million Americans.
The risk to you depends on the information that is sold. Thieves may use your account information to make purchases online or try to empty your bank account. Using the right information, thieves can even commit identity theft and open accounts in your name. These accounts can land on your credit report, severely damaging your credit and your ability to borrow in the future.
Once you’ve become a victim of identity theft, fighting it can be a long, complicated process. As many as 15.4 million Americans were victims of identity theft in 2016.
How to Protect Yourself
There are several ways to protect yourself from the threats posed by data breaches and the dark web.
Every online account you use should have a different password. That way, if your password is stolen, only one of your accounts will be compromised. Many online accounts also offer two-factor authentication, which requires an additional level of security at the point of login.
Many credit card companies now offer virtual card numbers to their customers for free. These temporary card numbers can be used to shop online, but come with a predetermined expiration date and spending limit. Finally, it’s important to monitor your credit report on a regular basis. While you can do this on your own, reputable credit reporting services can help by reporting activity as soon as it lands on your credit report. This way, you can easily identify fraud and take immediate action.
If any organization or online account stores your sensitive data, you can’t guarantee your information won’t be stolen and sold on the dark web. But making smart security choices and closely monitoring your credit will help you reduce the risk and limit the damage should you become a victim of identity theft.