Nowadays, people can almost do most of their tasks online, from sending messages through email and communicating with other people through social networking, and purchasing various products and services online. However, signing up for emails, social networking accounts, and personal accounts with online business requires that an individual provide his or her personal information. This is especially true for online businesses where people purchase products and services because subscribers or customers will also need to provide their real name, home address, contact details, and credit card information. While individuals can create social networking accounts and emails using aliases and some networks provide privacy rules and protection for their subscribers, individuals will still need to provide private information to authenticate their accounts. Moreover, people who can identify the flaws in social networking constantly challenge privacy protection regulations. Therefore, people who have memberships online are at risk for various criminal violations, including hacking and identity theft.
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The Internet is essentially a public network that people can access (Vacca 2003: 86). Therefore, people who go online, whether for personal or business reasons are constantly at risk for hacking and identity theft. According to the US Federal Trade Commission, the most common cybercrimes is identity theft (39%) and consumers often complain of being hacked or scammed because of information they provide for internet auctions, catalog sales online, foreign money offers, and online sweepstakes or lotteries (Cilli, 2005). The U.S. Bureau of Justice, on the other hand, reported that from 2005 to 2010, Internet fraud and identity theft were listed as major cybercrimes and while 5.5% of 6,424,900 households was violated, the number of cases increased to 7 percent of 8,571,900 households (2011: 2). The usual crimes include the following:
- The unauthorized use or attempted use of existing credit cards.
- The unauthorized use or attempted use of other existing accounts, such as checking accounts.
- The misuse of personal information to obtain new accounts or loans, or to commit other crimes.
Bureau of Justice, 2011b
Cybercriminals are able to commit their crimes through various ways. Phishing, for instance, is a means by which cybercriminals gain information by looking out for personal information online like passwords so they can access personal accounts. While many businesses online are legitimate, others pretend to be businesses that sell products or services so they can get credit card information or email addresses from customers. The phisher then sends the customer emails asking for them to provide other personal information that they can use to authenticate their identities. When this happens, phishers can use the customer’s credit card. Some businesses pose as online companies that offer jobs that people can do at home. Other times, these businesses pose fake jobs on job finder sites online. When people contact them about the job, they ask for the individual’s personal information (Lininger & Vines 2005: 39). Hackers, on the other hand, rely on malware so they can hack into the personal accounts of people online. Malware refers to programs or applications that pose great risks to people’s computers. From malwares, there are worms that work into an individual’s personal or business network and then used to generate information like passwords, email addresses, home address, and contact information (Miller & Cross 2012: 170). In the U.S., hackers usually use personal information from individuals so they can use their credit cards to apply for loans and mortgages (Khosrowpour 2004: 128).
Social networking sites are also venues for identity theft and hacking. In social networking, people fill in forms where they state their personal information as well as other information such as interests, schools or colleges attended, current workplace, and personal relationships. Therefore, social networking sites are particularly dangerous because unique and personal information are readily available for other people to access. Some online businesses are also being criticized because they use social networks so they can sell their products or services. When people put in their interests on these sites, businesses pick up on them and use them so they can target the users who are likely to purchase their products and services. For instance, when an individual states online that she’s interested in reading books and watching movies, the type of advertisements that will appear on his or her homepage are linked to online film and book stores (Moore 2011: 175). For this reason, social networking sites have installed various privacy protection programs in order to protect their users, but implementing these regulations is not enough.
As more people go online for social networking and purchasing products and services, more people are placed at risk for various cybercrimes including identity theft and hacking. Conducting business online through e-commerce and accessing different types of information online are necessary and beneficial, however, users must take precaution because of the risks involved. Therefore, online businesses, online watchdogs, and private and public security companies highlight the importance of limiting the amount of personal information that will be sent online and to make sure that all dealings, whether with online businesses or social networking sites, are legitimate. People can also protect themselves by installing security tools or programs on their computer.