File-sharing networks may be a convenient way for consumers to exchange movies, software or other large documents.
They are also an easy target for identity thieves hoping to hack into a computer through malware or keyboard tracing devices. In honor of National Internet Safety Month, identity theft protection company Lifelock, Inc. shed light on this threat as well as some ways to avoid it.
Identity thieves may hack into hundreds of thousands of credit reports, student loan applications and tax returns simply by searching certain keywords on peer-to-peer file-sharing websites. Some individuals who take advantage of such platforms inadvertently expose their entire hard drives.
"Identity thieves are using these same networks to peer into computers and access files like tax returns that contain the personally identifiable information of consumers, potentially putting unknowing consumers at risk for identity theft," Todd Davis, chairman and CEO of Lifelock, said.
Consumers are not the only ones responsible for protecting against identity theft. Medical and financial institutions often store personal information like Social Security numbers, driver's license numbers and credit and debit card information that would be extremely valuable to an identity theft.
By encrypting computers that contain such data, medical and financial institutions may mitigate their risk to identity theft. Still, many of these organizations participate in the same file-sharing networks that put consumer computers at risk, according to Lifelock.
Thieves who target medical information often use it to fraudulently pay for prescriptions or procedures. Doing this can change the rightful account holder's health information and lead to improper treatment down the road.
Lifelock customers are notified when their online activity puts personal information at risk and may have contents replaced and canceled in the event of a lost or stolen wallet. This can prevent thieves from fraudulently using credit or debit cards and may minimize the amount of damage control needed after an incident.
Still, Lifelock is not alone in its contributions to National Internet Safety Month. Law enforcement, educators, internet safety organizations and others have been urged to raise awareness of the threats - including identity theft - that consumers and businesses may encounter online.
Consumers who spend more time online often increase their risk to identity theft. In addition to signing up for an alert service, updating anti-virus software and deleting emails from unknown senders can reduce an individual's chance of falling for fraud.