Living with credit, Protecting yourself

What is the dark web, and why we should care

John Egan

The dark web is a murky, mysterious place on the internet that most of us don’t understand – including me – but all of us should learn about it. In this case, ignorance is not bliss; it’s ill-advised.

You may have heard the dark web mentioned amid chatter about recent data breaches involving our personal information.

But are you like me and really don’t get what the dark web is? I bet you are.

For who knows how long, I’ve heard the phrase “dark web,” but I didn’t really give it much thought until after news surfaced about the monstrous Equifax data breach. The Equifax breach exposed the personal information of 145 million Americans.

Since that massive data breach, one of Equifax’s credit-reporting competitors, Experian, has been advertising a free dark-web scan to find out whether your email has been compromised.

In July, Discover rolled out a free service to alert card members if their Social Security numbers are found on risky websites. “Signups for our new Social Security number alerts more than doubled in the 48 hours after the announcement of the Equifax data breach,” says Laks Vasudevan, vice president of products and innovation at Discover.

Yet how can you be sure you should get a dark-web scan if you’re clueless about what the dark web is?

On the dark web, your personal info is for sale
To learn what that term means, I poked around a bit on the web.

As explained by Experian, identity thieves hang out – well, I guess that’s what they do – around the dark web to buy and sell your personal data, such as your Social Security number, birthdate and credit card account numbers.

Unfortunately, crooks aren’t just rummaging around the dark web to find your data. They’re also scouring the dark web for compromised gift cards.

SurfWatch Labs, a provider of cybersecurity software, warns that not only will gift cards be the most requested holiday present this year, but they’ll also be one of the items most frequently found for sale on the dark web.

According to SurfWatch Labs, “Fraudsters employ a variety of simple tricks to find active gift card numbers and codes to steal – and millions of gift cards will soon be loaded with active balances across the country.”

So, with all sorts of personal data and gift card numbers floating around, think of the dark web as a marketplace for crooks, much like Amazon is a marketplace for shoppers.

The dark web as a secret club
I must emphasize that not everybody on the dark web is an evildoer. For example, cops delve into the dark web to uncover criminal deeds, and journalists, human rights activists, dissidents and whistleblowers also use it for good.

However, most Americans believe the dark web is a virtual dungeon. A 2016 survey by Canada’s Center for International Governance Innovation found nearly three-fourths of Americans want the dark web to be shut down.

“The dark web isn’t an actual place, but rather a hidden network of websites,” Experian says. “While it requires special resources, it’s just a matter of steps and getting certain systems set up that provide a way in for those looking to join the dark web and keep information such as their IP address hidden.”

Visitors to the dark web install software to hide their identities. It’s sort of a secret club.

And it’s a very small club. The dark web makes up just 3 percent of the entire internet, Experian says.

That small club can do big damage, though. If an identity thief buys your data on the dark web, he or she can wreak havoc with your finances, like opening up credit card accounts in your name but without your knowledge.

How can we safeguard our personal information?
Unfortunately, there’s not a lot you can do to prevent your private information from finding its way onto the dark web. Why? Experian notes that savvy hackers are constantly coming up with new schemes for stealing your data.

However, you can take steps to protect your data.

For one thing, you can check your credit report for irregular activity. (It was heartening to learn from a poll that found 1 in 4 Americans checked their credit after the Equifax breach.)

For another, you can strengthen your online passwords. By the way, “password123” is a weak and obvious password; you’ve got to be more creative.

If you’re like me, you probably don’t look at your credit report often enough, and you likely don’t change your passwords often enough.

But if you and I want our data and our gift cards to stay off the dark web, we’re going to have to shed some harsh light on securing our valuable information. Remember, the dark-web thieves are out there and they’re not going away.

And the last thing we want to do is untangle a web of trouble spun by dark-web criminals.

See related: Q&A: What to know, what to do about Equifax breachCredit cards can help monitor your credit in wake of Equifax breach, 13 ways to make sure your identity is stolen

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