Where am I? I don’t know this place. It’s dark. I feel like I’m way below the surface where no one can find me. But I’m not alone.
"Just get here?" asked a voice from the darkness.
"Who are you? Where am I?" I asked.
"You’re in the dark web, kid," the voice said. "You’re one of us."
The voice stepped toward me. I could see her outline from a light somewhere in the back of the room. She looked just like me, nine seemingly random numbers strung together. I could see others. They looked the same, but some were wearing backpacks.
"Dark web? Like Silk Road?" I asked.
"Dark web. Darknet. Underweb. Undernet. Invisible web," she said. "It’s not just the drug emporium that Silk Road made it famous for. It’s the internet inside the internet. You can’t just Google it. It runs on Tor, an open-source network that makes its users’ IP addresses anonymous. Hackers and criminal elements take advantage of this anonymity by hanging out here. In one room, you might find drugs or guns. We’ve heard that terrorists operate here, even hitmen. Other rooms, you don’t want to go inside.
It’s also the place where you can buy us."
"Who are you?"
"A Social Security Number like you. Down here we just go by the names of our owners. I’m Joanna."
"Mark," I said.
Joanna said a hacker stole me. She said I was probably stolen from a government or private organization that stored Mark’s personal information, like the IRS, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, his cell phone provider, or possibly even his health insurance company. She said there are thousands, perhaps millions, of us down here. An estimated 17.6 million people suffered some type of identity theft in 2014 from a record 783 data breaches. So far it’s cost victims billions.
And Joanna said it’s way worse than something like a hacker getting a credit card number, which can be canceled. Social security numbers are harder to change.
With social security numbers and other information like name, date of birth and home address, hackers can do a lot of damage, Joanna told me. And she said if they have answers to security questions like your mother’s maiden name, it’s even worse. She even said hackers can use your Social Security Number to open bank accounts or credit cards, file tax documents to collect your return and claim your government benefits.
"You see the numbers with the backpacks?"
"Yeah," I said. "Why do they keep disappearing?"
"They’re what hackers call "fullz." They’re the ones that include every type of information about a person’s identity, even answers to security questions. They might also include passwords to other websites. They’re worth big money. The rest of us, even if we have our owner’s name in our pocket, might only be worth $20 in bitcoin on a black market version of eBay."
"How do you know all this?"
"Most of us will be gone quickly as hackers try to capitalize on using the information before it’s reported stolen or compromised. You may disappear before we finish talking. I’ve been around a while. My number was reported stolen and I’m stuck here."
"So what do I do now? What can Mark do to get me back?"
The first thing to do, Joanna said, was to visit the Federal Trade Commission’s website, which includes instructions about how to report identity theft like contacting the fraud departments of your credit card companies, putting a fraud alert on your credit with one of the three credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax and Transunion) and filing a police report.
Joanna told me that for people like Mark to protect themselves from any type of fraud, they need to have strong passwords that are unique for every online account, even if they use a lazy system for creating them. She said people should read about email and phishing scams and how to avoid them.
But she said there’s some good news. There’s evidence that the dark web isn’t as big as once thought or as impenetrable, with authorities infiltrating black markets and making arrests. New security technologies like chip cards are making it harder to pull off some types of theft. And Tor isn’t all bad: The network was originally created for military communications and has become a place for free speech advocates like journalists and whistleblowers to speak out anonymously.
That stuff is great, I told her, but it doesn’t make me feel any better about being stolen. I’m starting to freak out.
Photo credit: mararie