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Scammers are Grateful to Oversharers

A few months back, we posted a blog entitled “Privacy is the New Black”. In that blog, we discussed the way our world is starting to view privacy differently and that protecting data privacy has become the new “hot thing”, or is at least dominating more and more of the conversation. We frequently focus on data, how to secure that data, and the legal means and mechanisms to do so. We often advise people to be careful about what types of applications they download on their phones, that they should not plug USB drives into their computers, or to use a VPN (virtual private network) to access their systems. However, we also need to be cognizant of not just the technology we use, but how we use the technology to share (or overshare) information with the world. In other words, it is important to consider a common sense everyday approach to protecting data in our everyday lives. So, in this season of giving thanks, we thought it would be appropriate to view data privacy through the lens of the individual, the data subject, the consumer — basically, YOU.

First, let’s take a look at social media. We use social media platforms to communicate with the world. Showing important moments of our lives, exchanging political views, etcetera. And while this type of exchange is amazing and can bring us closer to people we know and love all over the world, and help us maintain connections in ways never before seen, it can also cause unforeseen problems.

More and more we are hearing stories of parents being warned about fake kidnapping scam targeting their children. The scam (and, its many variations) works something like this: the cell phone rings, it is an unfamiliar voice on the other end says, “I have your child and you have to pay X amount to get them back.” Mom or Dad, appropriately panicked, yells their child’s name while still on the phone. Now, the scammer knows to call the “kidnap victim” Jimmy. Then Mom or Dad hear a voice that sounds like Jimmy say, “help me Mom”. The scammer uses the information Mom and Dad provide in their panicked state to “prove” that they really have Jimmy. This sounds like a window into any parent’s worst nightmare, and it is, except Jimmy has not been kidnapped and is safe and sound at school or at a movie, or any other place.

So how does this happen? The answer is simple, we are oversharing.

Scammers and thieves benefit greatly from our new “normal” of sharing every moment of our lives on social media. In the case of these scam kidnappers, authorities strongly suspect that they learned about their potential victims by trolling them on social media. And don’t look over at your teenager with an accusatory stare, the adults are just as guilty at oversharing. We post pictures of our kids, our vacations, bar mitzvahs, holy communions, graduations, birthdays… need we go on. We do not think of these photos or stories as data, but it is. And all of this “data” tells the story of our lives in intimate detail. Where we vacation, what we like to eat and, in cases like these: how many children we have, their names, what they look like, where they go to school- basically a predator’s or scammer’s dream.

So what happens if you are unlucky enough to be a victim of this type of particular scheme? Police advise to you: (i) hang up; (ii) ask for specifics; (iii) demand proof; and (iv) never wire the money. And while these are all excellent points, we would also add STOP OVERSHARING. As we approach the holiday season the desire to post pictures of turkeys, kids sitting with Santa, and families in matching holiday pajamas grows to epic levels. We need to be cognizant of a principal I learned as a young lawyer: never miss a golden opportunity to keep your mouth (or in this case your phone) shut.

Spend time with your family, not posting pictures of a turkey on Facebook. We know what you are eating (psst, we are eating it too). But this isn’t just a “spend less time on your phone and more time with your family” PSA. It is about safety and a wake up call that your data is valuable. It is valuable to you and it is valuable to others. So don’t just react, be protective and start to really think about what you are posting on your social media sites.

And lest you think that data does not have value, one need only see the greatest scam of all. Recently, Amazon announced that the site of its HQ2 would be in two (2) locations- New York and Northern Virginia. I know you are asking, yeah and how is that a scam? Well, by putting out for bid to every city in the US the possibility that Amazon could build its HQ2 in their city, dozens of US cities provided a ton of data to Amazon in an attempt to lure the internet giant. The result? Amazon got a huge amount of data on cities all over the country with barely having to lift a finger. Amazon received a treasure trove of information including proprietary information about real estate sites under development, details about talent pool, and local labor cost. All of this information is time-consuming and costly to aggregate and Amazon just got it FOR FREE from cities across the entire country.

It isn’t just us lesser humans that give away our data. 238 US cities just gave up their information to Amazon without blinking an eye. So while data is the new black, and data privacy laws are the new “hot” thing, at a personal level we need to start considering as a society whether we are truly going to value our data, or just pay it lip service. However, as we ponder this existential question, we also need to stop oversharing. Because, regardless of whether you are dealing with data privacy at a global, county or personal scale- luck favors the prepared.

Have a Happy AND SAFE Thanksgiving!

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Nothing contained in this blog should be construed as creating an attorney-client relationship or providing legal advice of any kind. If you have a legal issue regarding cybersecurity, domestic or international data privacy, or electronic discovery, you should consult a licensed attorney in your jurisdiction.