What is Personally Identifiable Information (PII) - How do Thieves Take Advantage of it?

by Writer Keith Morris

Topic: Personal Information Security

The amount of time that Americans spend online is continually increasing. Unfortunately, the amount of time that cybercriminals are putting into gaining access to valuable personal information online is rising as well. What exactly is PII, and how can you protect yourself from becoming a victim of this theft?

Essentially, PII or Personally Identifiable Information is anything that a thief could find out about you that enables them to steal your identity. There are various types of PII, from birth dates to login details, and there are several ways, both online and offline, that criminals can find and use this information for personal gain.


What Can Thieves Do With My Personally Identifiable Information?

Various private details count as personally identifiable information. Thieves can steal your Social Security Number, passport number, financial accounts, login credentials, passwords, home address, email addresses, phone numbers, driver's license number, medical records, insurance, or birth date.

Once a thief has access to one or more of these forms of PII, there are many ways a criminal can use this information to their advantage. Some of the consequences can be severe and challenging to resolve.

For example, a thief who has access to your PII can use it to obtain a new driver's license or ID, open a bank account and write bad checks, open utility accounts in your name, get a mobile phone contract, change your billing address, take out a credit card or loan, a mortgage, commit crimes in your name, and more. If criminals gain access to your debit card details, they can use the information to withdraw funds from your private accounts.

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How to Prevent Personally Identifiable Information Being Compromised

You can take several steps to ensure that all your personally identifiable information remains safe and secure, away from the prying eyes of criminals in both the online and offline spheres.

Protecting Your PII Online

The number of cybercrimes are growing every single day, and their methods for gaining access to your personally identifiable information are becoming more advanced. With that in mind, everyone should take some crucial steps to ensure they do not fall victim to identity theft.

1. Use Strong Anti-Virus Software

One of the most important things you can do to prevent cybercriminals from accessing your personally identifiable information online is to use up-to-date, advanced security software. Just as quickly as people find new ways to gain access to your personal information, online security companies are creating new ways to keep you protected from these types of crimes.

You should also ensure that you keep all your passwords up-to-date, create strong passwords, change them regularly, and keep a record of them somewhere where no one can access them. You can even purchase a password manager for this purpose.

2. Adjust Your Social Media Privacy Settings

Social media is another place where criminals target people for identity theft. For this reason, be careful what you share on your social platforms. Although those few snaps might seem harmless, you never know who is watching.

Cybercriminals can harvest surprising amounts of personal information from what we post online, from the position of security cameras to the location of valuables in your home. To make sure you are as safe as possible, another security step you should take is to look over the privacy settings on your accounts and make sure they are as high as possible.

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3. Browse Reliable Websites

Another thing you can do is to make sure you avoid providing any type of PII on a website that doesn’t start with https. The ‘s’ on the end of http is there to indicate a secure site, and if it isn’t there, your data may be more at risk. Check the site’s security certificates are up-to-date and be mindful of where you share your PII online.

4. Frequently Check Online Account Activity

In addition to this, make sure that you monitor all your financial accounts for any suspicious activity. You can also use your credit history file to check if your identity has been compromised. If you suspect anything has happened which has compromised your PII, then contact the relevant authorities as soon as possible.

Protecting Your PII Offline

There are also offline ways thieves look to steal your PII and some steps you can take to protect yourself. For example, never carry your Social Security card in your wallet. Keep it in a safe place at home.

1. Avoid Providing PII Details in Public

When typing your PIN into an ATM, make sure you keep it as private as possible by covering it with your hand and checking that no one is watching.  You should also never provide any identifiable financial information over the phone in public, as you never know who could be listening.

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2. Review Paper Statements

Continually review all your bank and medical statements and check for suspicious activity. Again, if you do see anything that doesn't look right, contact the relevant authorities as soon as possible. Check your mailbox daily and bring the mail into your home to avoid it being stolen. If you are planning a trip, ensure that you schedule a mail hold in advance.

3. Dispose of Documents Properly

Another tip that people often forget is to shred any paper copies of personally identifiable information before disposing of them. Although many incidents of identity theft happen online, there are still thieves that will go rooting through your trash to find your information and use it to their advantage.


Take Steps to Protect Your Personally Identifiable Information

No one is safe from identity theft. With criminals constantly finding new ways to locate and steal your PII, you need to take the appropriate steps to protect this sensitive information.

Personally, Identifiable Information takes many forms, and a lot of this information is in things that we use every day, such as our login details. However, by keeping tabs on our accounts, credit history, physical PII, and having up-to-date software on your device along with an updated antivirus, you can mitigate the risks of identity theft.

If you notice any suspicious activity, the sooner you can report it to the authorities, the greater your chances of a quick recovery from the incident.


About the Author

Keith Morris is a 20+ year veteran of the security game, with the knowledge and experience to set you on the right track toward personal safety and security. His firm is committed to giving you the tools and know-how to combat any threat to your safety.

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