Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Identity Theft -- Should a genealogist be concerned Part Two

As genealogists or family historians, we are concerned first with the identification of people. In a real sense, we deal with dates and places. Part of the process is sharing information with others interested in the same individuals. The larger online databases contain personal information on literally millions of deceased individuals, including birth and death information and much more. Is this online information a threat to the "identity" of living individuals?

In my last post, I reviewed the ambiguous statistics concerning "identity theft." The classic example of identity theft is depicted in TV advertisements. Some unsuspecting person ends up with a bill for buying a motor home or going on a trip to an exotic location. In reality, many, many different types of theft and fraud are included in the usually overblown statistics dealing with identity theft. It is interesting to note that the people who have the highest estimates of the number of victims are people selling some kind of preventive program.

This is not to say that identity theft does not occur, there are just a whole lot more types of crime that are more prevalent, like car theft for instance.

The real question is whether or not this online information could be used to "steal the identity" of a living person? The answer to this question is a qualified maybe, but the degree of expertise needed to develop enough information to actually harm someone is huge compared to the illegal benefit. If you study the statistics from my last post, you will see that only a very small percentage of the so-called "identity theft" complaints originate from the Internet or from E-mail. If you have experience researching family connections, you know that even when you have first hand knowledge about a family, finding the person you are searching for can be very difficult. Building an illegal identity could probably be done but it would not be easy.

This degree of difficulty is a real factor. Take credit card theft for example. Recent reports indicate that the market value of a "good" credit card number is only about $5 or so because the credit card companies and the card owners generally shut down the invalid use of the stolen number almost immediately.

One unfortunate fact is that many banks and other financial activities rely on the worn out "mother's maiden name" for identification. This is not a genealogical issue, but merely a need to change the basis for establishing identification.

Genealogist and family historians are not in any greater risk of identity theft than the general population. A review of the most common methods used by thieves to take identity information does not include any category unique to genealogists. As in all computer use there are some simple things you can do to reduce the risk even further, such as using longer passwords more consistently. But just because the risk is low, does not mean we do not need to be vigilant about our personal security.

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