Herb Weisbaum is an Emmy award-winning journalist and one of America’s top consumer experts. Weisbaum covers the consumer beat for the NBC News Digital. Many of his stories warn about rip-offs and scams – including cybercrime and identity theft. His website, ConsumerMan.com, is filled with valuable information and links to his NBC News columns.
During his distinguished career, Weisbaum has reported for NBC’s TODAY Show, CBS News, and Good Housekeeping magazine. His dedication to helping consumers has been honored by the Consumer Federation of America, National Consumers League, Society of Professional Journalists and United Press International. Weisbaum graduated Magna Cum Laude from Syracuse University. He is a passionate animal-lover and supports various pet rescue organizations in Seattle.
LIFARS: “Let’s start with the big picture. When it comes to cybercrime, how bad are things right now?”
Weisbaum: “It’s worse than ever – and that’s no exaggeration. All the cyber-security experts I talk to agree on that. Unfortunately, this crime spree continues to grow: More victims, more breaches and more money stolen each year. Here are a few recent stats that show the extent of the problem:
- Americans are receiving more than 1 billion scam robocalls each month, according to YouMail, a provider of free robocall blocking software.
- Nearly 17 million American adults and more than 1 million U.S. children were victims of ID theft in 2017, according to Javelin Strategy & Research.
- Last year, 551 breaches resulted in the theft of nearly 2 billion files containing the personal data of US citizens, according to research from Citrix ShareFile.
- A report from Cybersecurity Ventures predicts the annual global loss to ransomware could hit $11.5 billion by 2019.”
LIFARS: “What would you consider the top factors for cybercrime epidemic?”
Weisbaum: “There are three main factors fueling this cybercrime epidemic:
- With so much being done online and enormous amounts of valuable information being stored digitally, the cyber-realm is an extremely lucrative target for criminals.
- It’s easier than ever to do it. In the past, a cyber-crook needed computer skills; not anymore. Now, they can buy off-the-shelf malware kits that can be custom-designed to their specific criminal needs. There are even tutorial videos available.
- The internet and computer technology make it easier to target victims and convince them you’re legit. Crooks use Facebook Messenger to pretend to be your friend writing to say you’ve won a contest. They spoof their phone number on caller ID to make it look like that call is from your bank, credit card company, the IRS or law enforcement (whatever plays into their imposter scheme). It’s also easy to fake look-alike websites that are hard to distinguish from the real thing.”
LIFARS: “Do people realize or fully understand their digital risk?”
Weisbaum: “No. Many people remain clueless. And because of that they take needless risks – such as shopping or making financial transactions while connected to public WiFi. Too many people download apps from unknown sources, unaware of the potential for serious harm. And despite all the warnings, people keep clicking on links and opening attachments that can quickly and secretly load malware onto their machines. By doing these things, we make it easy for digital bandits to steal our money and personal information.”
LIFARS: “What about identify theft? Do you find that people are concerned about this?”
Weisbaum: “Yes, most people are concerned. Some are paranoid that anything they do online could hurt them. When I make speeches, most of the Q&A sessions deal with identity theft. Based on these interactions, it’s clear that people fear the threat, but don’t realize how they put themselves at risk and what they need to do to protect themselves. The one thing that really concerned me is “data breach fatigue.” With so many breaches and so many stolen files, some people are simply shrugging their shoulders and giving up. They believe their personal information has already been compromised – or very soon will be – and therefore they assume there’s nothing they can do to reduce their chances of being victimized. Of course, that’s wrong. This feeling of defeat was greatly exacerbated by the massive Equifax breach last year.”
LIFARS: “So, what can people do to protect themselves?”
Weisbaum: “Fighting cyber-fraud is a continuous process that takes time. People who opt for convenience over security increase their risk of getting burned. And trust me on this – dealing with identity theft is a real pain, that can take weeks or months (or longer) to deal with. Even something as simple as having your credit card number stolen means you need to contact every company that bills you automatically to change your account number.
Here are a few things you should do:
- Get a free copy of your credit report from Equifax, Experian and TransUnion every 12 months and look for anything suspicious, such as accounts you didn’t open.
- Freeze your credit files at the big 3 credit bureaus. This is free for victims of ID theft (you must file a police report first) and seniors. In a few states, it’s free for everyone. All adults in the U.S. will able to freeze and thaw their credit files for free starting in September.
- Put security alerts on your bank and credit card accounts to let you know when things happen that could signal fraud, such as a cash withdraw, card-not-present purchase or foreign transaction.
- Set-up online accounts for your financial accounts and check at least once a week for anything suspicious. Do this even if you don’t plan to do online transactions. If you don’t do it, an imposter crook might do it and gain access to your account.
- Don’t click links or open attachment unless you are expecting that email and are 100% sure it’s legit.
- NEVER respond to phone calls or email that requests personal information, no matter what the caller says. Find out what’s really going on and then decide what to do.
- If something suspicious happens, you need to find out what’s going on. Don’t assume it’s a simple mistake. For example: You get a bill for medical treatment you didn’t have, a collection that doesn’t make sense or your young child receives a summons for jury duty. All of these are warning signs that you, or someone in your family, may have been victimized by an identity thief.
Keep in mind: Some ID thieves still prefer low-tech methods, like dumpster diving for documents or stealing mail. So, get a locking mailbox and shred all documents with personal information before putting them in the trash.”
Want to learn more? Here are links to a few of Weisbaum’s recent articles about cybercrime and identity theft:
More than 1 million children were victims of ID theft last year
Credit freezes will soon be free for everyone
How to spot (and avoid) these Facebook and social media prize scams
Warning: Misspelling that web address can lead to trouble
Is the cloud a safe place for all your private data?
How hackers are hijacking your cellphone account
The hidden dangers of buying virtual currency go beyond a simple hack
Hackers scored more Social Security numbers than stolen credit card numbers in 2017