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The Resource Center Online Security Issues & Protection The Resource Center | article

The Instagram Hashtag That Was a Gold Mine for Identity Thieves

Instagram is a great way to share with friends and family, but be careful your #hashtags don't reveal too much.

Instagram is a great way to share with friends and family, but be careful your #hashtags don’t reveal too much.

Most of us hope that the mistakes we made when we were young stay in the past and never come back to haunt us. After all who deserves to be judged for the errors they made in their inexperienced youth? Unfortunately, sometimes the consequences of our actions spiral out of control and then all we can do is sit back and watch the storm — which is precisely what the teenagers who used the #myfirstpaycheck hashtag on Instagram are probably doing right now.

According to CNNMoney, federal prosecutors in Minnesota recently charged 28 individuals with participating in a conspiracy to cash counterfeit checks, with bank details taken from multiple sources — including Instagram photos. Law enforcement officials say the group searched Instagram for photos tagged with #myfirstpaycheck and were able to find a number of checks with account numbers and bank routing information clearly visible.

The defendants allegedly used the stolen information to open bank accounts and then cash and produce counterfeit checks. They are also accused of stealing physical checks from individual businesses. In all, the defendants collected more than $2 million in fraudulent proceeds.

The #myfirstpaycheck hashtag is very much what it sounds like — a place for first-time job holders to proudly share their achievements with family and friends. Unfortunately some of the teens using the tag on their photos forgot to take one simple step: They didn’t blur out sensitive information from the images, leaving that data available for thieves to take.

While the fault for this theft lies solely on the criminals’ shoulder, it is still important for all of us, teenagers and adults, to vigilantly protect our information. Identity theft is no laughing matter and a few simple steps could help keep your identity safer:

  • Watch what you post online: Sometimes this means obvious things, like paychecks or your home address. Other times it means not sharing your name, your age or posting too many personal details on social networks. Not only can such information help thieves develop a new identity, identifying information can also be used to hack in to your online accounts and retrieve information from there. For example, the security questions you answer when you are trying to retrieve your password are usual things like mother’s maiden name, the name of your first pet or your favorite food. If you’re an avid online poster the dedicated identity thief might be able to find all that information simply by scouring your Facebook profile.
  • Shred documents: Paycheck selfies aren’t the only way for thieves to get bank information from you. If you’ve ever tossed out important financial documents without shredding them, they are just as accessible to criminals as an Instagram post. Take care to shred all documents that contain sensitive information, such as bank statements, insurance forms and medical records.
  • Monitor your credit activity: Personal credit reports are often the first place where signs of fraud appear. For this reason it is important to sign up for a credit monitoring service that can alert you when certain activity occurs in your credit files that might suggest your identity has been stolen.

Don’t let yourself be caught unaware. Take steps to protect your identity and remember to always be safe online.