Have you ever wondered if your valuable personal information has been compromised in a cyber-attack or security breach?
Lots of companies likely have your information on file - but how do you know if it's kept safe?
There are services out there claiming to search the hidden parts of the internet to make sure your info isn't out there. But are these services and products legitimate?
To find out, we put one product to the test and verified how well it works.
If you watch TV, chances are you've seen an advertisement from the credit agency Experian.
The ad shows people in dark rooms typing nefariously as they search the internet for personal information to buy and sell. The advertisement goes on to say that Experian can offer you protection from cyber criminals on the dark web.
But, what is the dark web? And should you be worried about it?
To find out, KTVB spoke with Doug Twitchell, an Assistant Professor at Boise State in the Department of Information Technology and Supply Chain Management. He emphasizes his studies in cybersecurity.
We also reviewed the latest reports on fraud and identity theft from the Insurance Information Institute, a nonprofit organization that does research "to improve public understanding of insurance - what it does and how it works."
According to a report done by the Insurance Information Institute, identity theft and fraud rose steadily from 2013 to 2015. In 2016 there was a slight drop, but still about 400,000 Americans reported ID theft.
The report shows that in 2016, 1.3 million cases of fraud were reported, costing consumers over $744 million.
So how does the trade of stolen personal information on the dark web play into this? Twitchell explains.
"We call it the dark web because people who do these things want to not be found, so they use technologies that keep them anonymous and confidential," said Twitchell.
Researchers generally agree that about only 5 percent of the entire internet is actually accessible to the public. So when you think about what you can and can't see, imagine an iceberg. You may see a portion floating above water, but the vast majority is unseen “below the surface.”
Cyber criminals are trading stolen information right now on the dark web. They're making sure their sites and information are not indexed by search engines like Google. Sites on the dark web can only be found by their exact URL.
"The URL's, that is what we call the address, the address looks a lot different and is usually just made up of essentially random numbers and characters, and that's how they keep themselves hidden," said Twitchell.
Making these cyber crimes hard to track for law enforcement.
Take last year's Equifax credit hack, which involved the trade and sale of personal information on the dark web.
"We estimate that it was about 143 million people had their information stolen in the hack.
Information like social security numbers, bank accounts, credit information. all available to be bought and sold,” said Twitchell.
In a national commercial, Experian claims they can protect you from that very scenario by scanning the dark web and letting you know if your information is there. All you have to do is enter your email.
But our expert says that service is more a clever advertising tactic rather than a useful service.
"My initial impression was that it was trying to scare people," said Twitchell. "Just having an email address isn't all that valuable, in fact, if you have an email address and you've signed up for anything, then everyone has your email address."
To Verify, we did the scan, and It appears Experian really does run some kind of search of your email address.
They email you the results, then encourage you to buy a monthly subscription to search the dark web for more of your valuable personal data. Data that first, you need to hand over to them.
Even still, Twitchell says Experian's dark web search can only go so far.
"I would say they are only getting into a small amount of what's being traded, because how can anyone even know if they are getting to the entire thing, they don't," said Twitchell.
If you take a closer look at Experian's website, they advertise doing daily scans of over 600,000 web pages to detect if your info is stolen, but in reality that's only a fraction of the over 1 billion websites on the publicly accessible internet.
According to Experian, the sites they search include web pages, blogs, bulletin boards, peer-to-peer sharing networks, forums and chat rooms on the publicly accessible internet and the dark web, and social media feeds.
Experian does offer other features as part of their identity protection plans. Things like credit monitoring, ID theft insurance, and bank account monitoring.
We've mentioned clever advertising a few times, and if you take a closer look, Experian is transparent about that.
That includes the clause that the users "understand that by submitting my e-mail address on this site that you may use my e-mail address to contact me about your Experian IdentityWorksSM product, or other products that may be of interest to me.”
Taking closer look at the 15,000-page plus terms of agreement, you agree to by entering your email that: "You understand and agree that ECS receives compensation for marketing of credit opportunities or other products or services available through third parties..." Meaning, you are consenting to the sale of you information.
Twitchell says, in his opinion, that the Experian service has plenty of benefits that could be valuable to consumers looking to take charge of their personal information.
But when it comes specifically to monitoring your information on the dark web, Twitchell says he isn't sold that this product can fully do that.
So as a consumer it's up to you to decide if exchanging your personal information and money for a protection service makes you feel safer.
So we can Verify that yes, Experian can scan some parts of the dark web and offer you protection with their service. But the extent of that is questionable.
When signing up for any identity protection service though, Twitchell says to keep this in mind.
"The probability is low and it's likely not going to happen to you, but even if it does, there are already processes in place for you to contest and fix the problems," said Twitchell.
Twitchell says there are some simple and free things you can do to protect your accounts and information.
Make sure you have long passwords with letters and numbers. Experts say at least 12 characters. Also, make sure you have different passwords for your accounts.
One of the best things you can do: Routinely change your passwords for important accounts.
KTVB reached out to Experian for comment on this story, but they did not return calls or voicemails.
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