Digital Defense: Protecting Your Cyber Self

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COLUMBIA - Cyber security experts have described trying to scrub yourself from the internet as a proverbial game of whack-a-mole. The second you think you’ve erased your information from one search site, another one pops up.

Family Tree Now, Been Verified, True People Search, The White Pages - there are a bunch of sites out there where you type in someone’s name and their city and, within seconds, you find all of their personal information. That includes current and past addresses, phone numbers or a list of possible relatives. It’s fast, it’s cheap, sometimes even free and it’s legal.

Det. Tom O’Sullivan of the Boone County Sheriff’s Department said the information comes from open records and collected through government agencies.

“These companies have just been able to compile all this information and they turn around and sell it." he said. "It’ll pop up probably every place you ever lived and vehicles you owned. Anything that’s public record potentially could show up.”

Questions arise when it comes to domestic abuse victims or individuals who, for safety reasons, don’t want their address so easily-accessible. 

“Good Luck. That genie’s already out of the bottle,” O’Sullivan said, 

Aside from the perceived physical threat of someone finding your address, the threat of identity theft is very real. 

Jonathan Sessions, owner of Columbia-based tech company Gravity, said that's a big concern from the information security perspective.

“If I’m trying to get into your bank account and I need to answer three security questions and they are are all based on your personal info that’s publicly accessible, you’re at risk.”

Some of those standard questions are: first street you grew up on, your high school, your mother’s maiden name. All of the answers to these questions could be on public records.

Some banks, like Central Bank of Boone County, have adjusted for that.

Central Bank Fraud Officer Suzie Naeger said, “We definitely try to ask security questions that are unique to the customers. We try to stay away from generic questions.”

Javelin Strategy & Research did a 2017 identify fraud study. It found $16 billion was stolen from 15.4 million U.S. consumers in 2016.That's up from the $15.3 billion and 13.1 million consumers in 2015.

"In the past six years, identity thieves have stolen more than $107 billion,” the study said.

Identity theft is an issue that wasn’t even on the radar of banks or law enforcement when Naeger and O’Sullivan began their careers.

“Definitely when I started with the bank 23 years ago, it was not a common topic,” Naeger said. “We didn’t talk about it. We didn’t do training. It wasn’t something we really encountered. And, now, it’s a common discussion we have with customers on a regular basis.” 

O’Sullivan described the uptick in identify fraud cases as massive.  

“I mean, no one knew what identity theft was 30 years ago.  Probably happened, but not on scale it is today,” he said.

The standard advice from the technology, law enforcement and bank sectors is the same -- vigilance.

Sessions said, “Just think about it. That’s always my recommendation. Think about what you’re sharing before you share it.”

Naeger said, “Watching their accounts to ensure it’s really the transactions they authorize."

 O'Sullivan said, “I don’t know that you’re ever going to be able to completely scrub yourself off the internet. Again, this thing - it’s technology and what’s it going to be in 10 years?”