More than three-quarters of American adults are active on social media, and the numbers total approximately 2.3-billion people worldwide. By living with and through our technology, it is easier than ever before to reconnect with friends, stay in touch with family and meet new people across previously unassailable physical distances. But this also means that the likes of identity theft is becoming a bigger problem.
Unfortunately, in stark contrast to real-world interactions, there are few reliable ways to be sure a person is who they purport to be on the internet.
The proliferation of social media tools has created new space for fraudsters and other criminal agencies to exploit interpersonal networks and gain access to a treasure trove of previously inaccessible data.
Identity theft is big business
In 2014, 17.6-million Americans experienced some form of identity theft. This marks an extraordinary 175% increase over the past decade, and identity theft has grown even more rapidly in other parts of the world.
CIFAS, a fraud-prevention service based in the United Kingdom, reports a total 57% increase in identity theft victims over just the last year. A staggering US$112-billion has been stolen over the past six years as a result of identity fraud.
Social media creates a culture of oversharing, encouraging users to broadcast the details of their lives to the internet
With more people also moving toward online banking and bill paying, it should come as no surprise that projections indicate both instances of fraud and the resulting financial losses are likely to continue sharply increasing in the near future.
A feeding ground for fraud
More than 80% of identity theft cases are considered internet-related, and the tremendous amount of personal information voluntarily shared on social media makes it a prime feeding ground for would-be fraudsters.
A dedicated scammer can often track down an abundance of data on a person with minimal effort, ranging from full names and birth dates to names of parents, places of work and residence, names of pets and many other potentially useful details.
Related: A reminder: why protecting your online identity is vital
More motivated criminals can attain a great deal of information through phishing, posing as a known acquaintance, legitimate company or other trustworthy figure to gain trust and access information or manipulate their target.
A culture of oversharing
The explosive rise in identity theft also points to deeper issues at the heart of the internet experience.
In addition to the ambiguous nature of online identity, social media creates a culture of oversharing by encouraging its users to broadcast the details of their lives to the wider “world wide web”.
While many social media websites have taken steps in recent years to enhance privacy and curb identity theft and other forms of fraud, there remains a delicate balance between empowering users to share and connect freely with others without becoming an open invitation to criminals.
The explosive rise in identity theft also points to deeper issues at the heart of the internet experience
LinkedIn, Facebook and others have faced considerable challenges, and earned no small degree of criticism, for their attempts at straddling the line between adding useful features and impinging on their users’ right to privacy.
An uncertain future
Young social media users will face a similar challenges as technology continues to evolve.
Having grown up with the Internet and the concept of creating an “identity” over social network spaces, today’s youth are comfortable with sharing almost everything about themselves online. The prevalence of smartphones and other mobile devices add another layer of complexity to the issue, making it even easier to share — and steal — sensitive data.
Fortunately, stronger encryption and security protocols are being put to use by many social media tools and websites. Users should take time to personally research identity theft protection tools, put them to use, and understand what they do and do not protect.
Learning to encrypt personal data and navigate the web securely is an excellent first step towards reducing fraud on social media. Regularly changing login information, using strong passwords and utilizing two-factor authentication whenever possible are also significant steps in the right direction. Ultimately, however, the best tool is simply using discretion when deciding what to share online and with whom.
As we offload more of our lives onto programming code and data algorithms, we share our social spaces with peers as well as potentially dangerous strangers. Today, learning to reduce exposure, protect one’s privacy and recognize the signs of identity theft is crucial for maintaining safe social structures — both online and off.