New protections, vulnerabilities in fight against identity theft

October 29, 2017 GMT

As data breaches piled up this year exposing personal information to identity thieves, southwestern Connecticut was coming off a year in which complaints by local residents alerting officials of incidents affecting them fell precipitously.

The bad news? The bad guys may be ready to hit those still hanging onto any false sense of security, or otherwise gambling a breach will not punch a hole in their own pocketbook in the coming days or weeks.

Nearly two months after Equifax reported a systems breach exposing the personal information of some 143 million Americans, experts say many are still failing to take steps to lock down their identities with the regularity they lock up their homes and cars during the course of each day.

In an Experian survey of 1,000 Americans last March — undertaken even as its own systems were on the verge of being infiltrated — the credit bureau found that half of consumers believe they will never be the victim of identity theft.

Since that survey and the subsequent Experian revelation in early September, a steady drumbeat of reminders have flooded the news, with victims including retailers like Whole Foods; as well as sophisticated entities like Deloitte, which consults on cybersecurity from its Stamford offices and which recently reported a breach affecting an overseas office.

The Stamford-Norwalk-Bridgeport region had the 16th highest rate of identity theft in the nation last year, according to the Federal Trade Commission, with just under 1,500 recorded cases. That was down nearly 40 percent from the 2,400 complaints filed with the FTC in 2015, an incidence rate that ranked among the five most severe nationally that year.

In 2016, the FTC tracked 399,000 complaints of identity theft in all states, down from 490,000 the previous year but still the second highest total of the past 15 years. Only debt collectors and impostor scams were flagged more often by Americans to the FTC last year.

Earlier this year, the Connecticut General Assembly considered a bill that would establish a registry similar to one in California that allows victims of ID theft to provide evidence they are not the perpetrators of criminal activity being done in their name.

“It’s a constant cat-and-mouse game — there’s always a vulnerability criminals will learn to exploit,” Greenwich detective Mark Solomon said at a forum this past summer organized by the Greenwich Chamber of Commerce. “It’s not if (criminals) do have our information, but how many times over they have it.”

The basics of identity theft protection are familiar to many — first and foremost, shredding documents with financial information, guarding Social Security numbers and shielding PIN numbers and payment cards at the point of sale.

Many individuals take more proactive steps like regularly scanning financial statements; strengthening and changing regularly their digital passwords; and monitoring their credit histories for any signs of illicit activity.

And more tools are coming. After weeks delay in alerting the nation on its breach, Equifax pledged to give people next January the ability to instantaneously freeze their credit information to prevent thieves from opening accounts in their names.

And with an eye on the annual tax season in which mailboxes and websites are flooded with taxpayer Social Security numbers — a field day for ID thieves — U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Mo., reintroduced last week a Taxpayer Identity Theft Protection Act that would allow people to request PIN numbers from the Internal Revenue Service for use on their tax returns, rather than Social Security numbers used today.

Even as new measures emerge intended to protect identities, however, new gaps are cropping up in unexpected places. Last week, the Better Business Bureau of Connecticut warned payment card holders to check regularly their new chip-embedded payment cards on the possibility the devices can become detached from the plastic and ultimately fall into the hands of bad actors.

“All they have to do is glue it onto another card and they can go on a shopping spree at your expense,” stated Connecticut BBB spokesman Howard Schwartz in a caution to consumers. “As we approach the holiday retail season, credit cards can take a beating. Unless you check the credit card (chip’s) integrity, it may fail.”

Includes prior reporting by Macaela J. Bennett.

Alex.Soule@scni.com; 203-842-2545; @casoulman