Identity theft is a gold mine for fraudsters, reaching an all-time high in 2016, with up to $16 billion worth of losses. During the first six months of 2017 there were a record 89,000 cases of identity theft in the UK alone.
The most commonly known type of identity theft is when criminals attempt to access the victims’ bank accounts or buy goods or services with the stolen credit cards. But your online identity can also be stolen in more subtle ways that can also create problems for you, even if it doesn’t cost you money.
Social identity theft, who’s who
Fraudsters can create a duplicate Facebook or Twitter account under your name, and then artificially “like” a celebrity or political candidate, and then sell your duplicate account as a loyal follower. A recent report from the University of South California and Indiana University claimed that as many as 48 million of Twitter’s active users are actually not real users, but fake accounts impersonating real people. As of Nov 2017, Facebook estimates that 10% of its 2.07 billion monthly users are duplicate accounts, up from 6% in 2016.
Celebrities can demand more money for their sponsorships if the number of followers is artificially inflated. According to the New York Times, Paul Hollywood, the star of the British Bake Off, Olympian James Cracknell, British influencer Arabella Daho, and Clive Standen, star of the TV show Taken, have all paid for endorsements from fake social media accounts.
This means that anyone with a Facebook account, even you, can be a victim. You run the risk of getting into trouble for endorsements made by someone masquerading as you. For example, if your imposter likes a dating program while you are married, or visits a recruiting site when you are employed, you could be confronted and asked to explain your behavior. If the fake activity includes endorsing a public figure that is considered extreme or highly controversial, a potential employer or business partner might have second thoughts about working with you based on the your political views.
So if a friend or colleague comments on strange activity on your social media account, this could be an indication that you’ve been hacked – and it’s worth investigating. If there is a fake account, request that the social media platform shut it down as soon as possible.
Online shopping leads to impersonation, fraudulent ads
Fraudsters can also steal your online identity to create fake clicks and views to hijack ad revenue. One in five paid clicks were fraudulent during the month of January 2017, according to paid advertising experts.
Your ID and browsing history on commercial websites, including purchases, and items put in abandoned shopping carts can be stolen and then used by fraudsters to impersonate you while they go on a shopping spree, receiving commissions for fake impressions and clicks.
Stolen identities are more believable then fake ones because they include real purchases. In addition, if fraudsters don’t steal the online identities of real shoppers, they are forced to create fictional identities and shopping activities which requires more time and effort.
Having your online shopping identity stolen can have a negative impact on your online shopping experience. Once your account is flagged as suspicious, all of your personal settings on your favorite e-commerce sites can be erased including personalized shopping preferences, personal data such as billing address and shipping address. Your favorite items won’t be saved, you won’t receive coupons, be notified if items in abandoned shopping are for sale, or receive recommendations based on previous purchases.
In addition, because the fake account is clicking away on ads that are irrelevant for you, you might see the same ad over and over again for something that you never clicked on before and doesn’t interest you, like hotels in Romania when you had no intention of going there, pick-up trucks when you live in the inner city, or ads for baby strollers or cribs when your kids have already graduated from college.
Although these changes to your online shopping experience are more creepy than costly, you lose all the benefits of relevant content and product recommendations based on your actual online behavior.
There is some good news. There is a growing awareness of identity theft, and in the US thieves can be charged with a felony even if there is no money stolen.
Even if no one meddles with your bank account there is still a possibility that your online identity has been stolen. Be on the lookout for duplicate social media accounts and strange advertisements popping up to protect your reputation and shopping history. Fraudsters can inflict damage, even if they don’t steal your cash.