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Consumers Are Unknowingly Risking Their Digital Identities

September 6 — Reports of data breaches have become commonplace — from Equifax one year ago, to Target, to Uber, to Home Depot. According to the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse there have been more than 2,000 data breaches since 2015, impacting more than 7 billion records.

While some security experts say almost all consumers have likely been affected in some manner by a data breach, a recent AARP survey found that many put themselves in even higher jeopardy due to their risky online behavior. High-risk behaviors include:

  • Password re-use: Nearly half (48 percent) of adults have used the same password for more than one online account.
  • Bank account access: Only four in 10 (43 percent) respondents reported having online access to all of their bank accounts.
  • Credit report: Almost half of adults (47 percent) reported that they have experienced fraudulent charges on their credit or debit card, yet very few (14 percent) have ordered a security freeze on their credit report.
  • Digital ID know-how: Seven of 10 adults (73 percent) failed a quiz testing their “digital identity IQ.”

“Our survey results indicate that a lot of people may feel overwhelmed and have just given up,” said Douglas Shadel, AARP’s lead fraud researcher. “Two-thirds of those surveyed said that given the number of data breaches that have occurred, they think it is inevitable that criminals will be able to exploit their credit at some point. But we are emphasizing that there are powerful things you can do to make sure that stolen data can’t be used against you.”

AARP also fields a Digital Identity IQ Quiz that consists of eight true-or-false questions. Quiz results from recent polling revealed that only one-third of respondents were aware that a fraud alert will not prevent their credit file from being shared with potential creditors, nor does a fraud alert block potential new credit. It simply places a comment on your history so that creditors will contact a consumer prior to opening a new account. Additionally, under half of respondents were aware that purchasing ID theft monitoring services does not prevent identity thieves from stealing identities. Most such services will notify individuals if someone is attempting to open new credit in their name but won’t prevent it from happening.

Moreover, less than half of consumers completing the quiz knew that a debit card is not as safe as a credit card. Consumers are responsible for no more than $50 of fraudulent charges on a credit card; however, if money is stolen from a bank account through a debit card, there are no protections on that money.

In response to the survey findings, AARP’s Fraud Watch Network has launched a campaign to raise awareness of identity theft risks and educate consumers on how to enhance the safety of their personal information. The network is urging consumers to take the following three steps to protect their digital identities:

  • Order a freeze: A security freeze should be put in place with the three credit reporting bureaus so that no one can access a credit file or open a new credit account with the consumer’s information. Traditionally, there has been a fee for placing a freeze on credit reports, but beginning in late September, the process will be free based on legislation passed by Congress in May.
  • Set up digital access: Consumers should set up online access to all financial accounts — bank accounts, credit cards, 401(k)s, etc. — and accounts should be regularly monitored so transaction knowledge is up-to-date and any fraudulent activity is quickly recognized.
  • Use separate passwords: Using unique passwords should be used for all accounts. This ensures that if one account is hacked, other accounts are not at risk. A good way to manage all the unique passwords is to use a digital password manager that keeps all passwords secure and helps users create different, strong passwords for each online account.

Launched in 2013, the AARP Fraud Network is a free resource for people of all ages. Consumers may sign up for “Watchdog Alert” emails that provide information about scams. There is also a free helpline (877-908-3360) connecting consumers with volunteers trained in fraud counseling. Its website contains information about fraud and scams, prevention tips from experts, an interactive scam-tracking map, quizzes and video presentations featuring network ambassador Frank Abagnale whose personal story was depicted in the movie “Catch Me if You Can.”

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