It's the ultimate in financial creepiness: knowing someone’s been spying on your credit or other financial details. How about then having those details posted online for anyone to view—or grab?
That's apparently what happened yesterday when a group of public officials and celebrities including First Lady Michelle Obama, FBI Director Robert Mueller and, yes, celebrity Paris Hilton. They all reportedly had their credit reports and other financial details posted online. News reports are pointing to a website in Russia that published the information on Monday and continued to add to it throughout the day. So far, it hasn’t been confirmed whether the information posted was accurate or whether it perhaps was a hoax, though it sounds as if it probably was the former.
Though the number of victims here appears to be small—just under a dozen by last report—the fact that they are high profile public figures means the hack not only makes the news, but it brings out the big guns to head an investigation and hopefully track down the perpetrators.
The Crime Goes Primetime
Not everyone thinksthat's fair. As one commenter who goes by the screen name Leesaann322 wrote in response to a story on The New York Daily News website:
… because they’re celebrities they get FBI checking on it? Where was the FBI when some fool in Ohio stole my debit card information and purchased auto parts to the tune of 700 bucks? Did they help investigate?
Fair or not, the fact is that data breaches and identity theft remain real threats to financial privacy and both the frequency and consequences of these crimes are often underestimated.
As CyberScout recently pointed out in a review of the movie Identity Thief: “In the film, police also tell (main character Jason) Bateman that 5 to 10 percent of the time, the thief is caugh'—a wildly optimistic statement. In reality, according to (Raul) Vargas, a fraud specialist with CyberScout, fewer than 1 in 1,000 identity thieves are successfully prosecuted. And the crime is far more rampant than this movie shows. In the real world, 20 people are victims of identify theft every minute. That's a new victim every three seconds.”
If They’re Not Safe …
This breach also raises the question: If Michelle Obama’s credit report and personal information isn’t safe, whose is?
It's a valid question. But short of freezing your credit reports (which will cost you money and generally isn’t recommended unless you have already been a victim of fraud),it's very difficult, if not impossible, to stop all breaches.
What you can do, says Adam Levin, chairman of CyberScout and Credit.com, is become extremely careful (maybe a bit paranoid?) about the personal information you share online and elsewhere and “Adopt a culture of monitoring: get free credit reports from AnnualCreditReport.com and monitor your credit standing along with your free credit scores using Credit.com’s free Credit Report Card; self-monitoring credit and bank accounts; enrolling in transactional monitoring offered by banks, credit unions and credit card providers; and considering the purchase of credit and public records monitoring programs.”
This story may fade away in the news cycle in a few days. But even if it does, the hackers and identity thieves will continue to mine sources online and offline for information they can use to commit fraud. Their next victims may not make the news, but they’ll feel the impact just the same.