At this very moment criminals could be assessing your value and selling your identity. That’s right. While selling humans fortunately went out of fashion in the 19th century, the sale of identities is thriving. Moreover, this trade has been given fresh momentum with the development of the so-called “Dark Web”.
This blog will look into the covert trade in personal identities. By tracking how our identities are bought and sold online, and checking publicly available data, we can find out how much our digital selves are worth. And when you learn the numbers, you’ll probably be surprised, so read on to find out more.
Dark Web as identity marketplace
The internet we see and (generally) use is just the surface of something much deeper, and much larger. It’s easy to assume that search engines like Google encompass the whole World Wide Web, but they don’t. In fact, they don’t even come close.
Alongside the normal web, sites a huge archive of unindexed material (the “Deep Web“). But there’s also a much more well-concealed web which Google never touches. Because of its secrecy, this has been christened the “Dark Web”, and it has become a key site for identity purchases.
On the Dark Web, the identity of individuals is almost impossible to trace. It can only be accessed via tools like TOR, which wrap up your identity in an endless series of layers, rerouting your traffic until no trace remains of your original identity.
This makes it the natural habitat for people who want to make illicit transactions. Drugs, weapons, pornography – all of them are freely available via cryptocurrencies on the Dark Web. And so are billions of identity records. One of them could be yours.
How do identity records get onto the markets of the Dark Web?
Every week, stories seem to emerge about data breaches from corporations and public organizations. You’ve probably been caught up in one to some extent. Perhaps it was flight records from a company like British Airways, or Yahoo account details. Anyone’s data is vulnerable.
When breaches happen, the data involved doesn’t disappear. It’s often stored on the Dark Web and turned into marketable commodities.
By linking together pieces of “personally identifiable information” (PII), hackers can create identities that can easily be used to take out credit cards and steal from bank accounts. And in some cases, known as “fullz”, these identities include a vast trove of details – from Social Security numbers to postal addresses, driver’s license numbers, and even your mother’s maiden name.
How does the market for PII work?
Not everyone’s data is on the Dark Web, but there’s a good chance that you or your family have been affected. However, that doesn’t mean criminals have access to your “fullz”.
Most of the time, a few pieces of PII leak onto the Dark Web. Often, that’s just a Social Security number. But even then, criminals will put a price on the number and advertise it for sale.
Typically, a Social Security number on its own won’t go for much. $2.99-$3.99 is standard. When you add in other pieces of data to create fullz, the price jumps a bit, but not that much. Estimates vary depending on the individual concerned, but expect fullz to sell for around $8 – not much more.
However, fullz aren’t the only ID documents for sale on the Dark Web. For example, digital scans of passports tend to average around $15. And the price leaps if “secondary ID” is included, such as a license number.
According to Experian, diplomas sell for $100-400, while medical records can be the most valuable of all, often retailing for $2,000.
How to find out what your value is on the Dark Web
If you want to know whether criminals are selling your PII, one method is to pay a visit to the markets of the Dark Web to find out.
If you choose to do so, it’s highly advisable to pay for a high-quality VPN for Tor. This will make it very hard for anyone to see whether you have accessed TOR, and add extra assurance that your movements on the Dark Web will remain private.
Remember, you’re accessing very shady digital locations here, and there’s no need to expose yourself.
When you log onto TOR, you’ll need to use special Dark Web links to find the right marketplaces. Look here for a list of current sites which may host your PII.
Alternatively, companies like EquiFax and Experian offer “trawling” services which check Dark Web marketplaces for users’ information. That may be a safer option, and professional searchers should know exactly where to look.
What to do if your identity is being sold
So, what happens if criminals are buying and selling your ID? First off, don’t panic. Unless you have direct knowledge of thefts from your bank account, or fradulent credit card demands, you’re probably in the clear.
After that, you’ll need to report the ID theft to your bank(s) and, ideally, to the authorities. Report any suspicious credit card activity and look back through your records. Anything out of the ordinary should be flagged up and investigated.
When that’s done, try to tighten up your online security procedures to reduce the risk of further PII leaks. Denying data to criminals is the best way to reduce your value on the Dark Web, and there are several ways to do so.
Strong passwords are vital. So check your banking logins and make them harder to crack. Changing them regularly also makes a huge difference. Never stick with the same passwords for years on end. And don’t share passwords across different logins. That’s an invitation to fraud.
Updating antimalware and antivirus software is also essential. As is learning to avoid clicking on strange email attachments or links in messages from strangers. Both are good ways to contract malware infections which can send data straight to Dark Web brokers.
Finally, remember the role of VPNs. A good VPN encrypts everything you send, and makes it very hard for cybercriminals to know anything about you. That really matters if your data has fallen into the wrong hands. Identity thieves will often target their victims and try to spy on their online activities. That way, they can build believable profiles and assume false identities that even banks fall for.
So everyone should have a VPN active whenever they are online. And especially if your data is being bought and sold.
You’re more valuable than you think: So drive a hard bargain with hackers
As we’ve seen, there’s a booming market for individual identities. Every year, Americans lose billions of dollars to fraudsters who put these identities to good use. So try to cut off their supply at the source. It might mean changing the way you behave online, paying for VPNs, and requesting credit companies to research the corners of the Dark Web. But if we try, eventually we should be able to put these criminals out of business.