Security warning: Have you used these?

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (ABC 4 Utah) – From credit card theft to identity fraud, a growing online security threat has experts warning the public.

You see them all the time on social media.  They are clever, entertaining, and often times a lot of fun.  They answer questions like, “What grade are you earning in life?”  “Where will you meet your soul mate?” and “Which Disney princess are you most like?” but ABC 4 Utah/CW30 found that the creators of online quizzes are not just making them for people’s enjoyment.

Jammed with 45,000 searches per second and billions of users a day, it is no wonder the worldwide web is becoming tricky to navigate. 

"Smart ads really bother me quite a bit,” said one University of Utah student.

“I know what I'm looking for when I get online, so that's what I go to," added another.

Whether you are shopping online, conducting research, or just killing time, experts say it is now easier than ever to end up in trouble.

“It’s difficult because things are changing so quickly, so even if you learn, sort of, the best rules for safety and security today, they may not be applicable tomorrow,” said University of Utah computer security expert Tamara Denning.

Denning says when it comes to compromising privacy, some of the most common culprits are those alluring online quizzes. 

"People may not be aware of the kind of information that is being collected from them..." Denning explained.

College student Leslie Patterson says she certainly was not.

"So what was the last quiz you took?” asked Good 4 Utah’s Ali Monsen.

"So, I think it was, 'Which Disney princess I was…” Patterson said. “I was Pocahontas,” she added.

Patterson has taken several online quizzes and constantly receives spam mail and unwanted text messages. 

"Even the other day, I got a text telling me to fill out this survey, and I'm like, ‘Where the crap did this come from, how did they get this information?’” Patterson recalled.

Because Patterson never explicitly gave out her information, she has never made the connection.  It turns out, many companies that make these quizzes have hidden agendas.

Experts say developers are using a sneaky tactic called data mining, using statistics and self-improving algorithms to recognize interesting patterns in online activity.  Or simply put—tracking your online habits for advertisers.

“All sorts of companies use data mining, so certainly it has strong interests in terms of advertising possibilities,” Denning said.

“You have probably noticed those pesky pop-ups—they seem like they are made just for you.  Well, they are, because corporations use data mining to create digital profiles for all of us.

"This is their gender, they're this particular age, they like to buy these kinds of cars, they seem to be into fitness..." Denning explained.

While advertisements may annoy you, Denning says they are the least of people's problems.  Quizzes really become dangerous when hackers start phishing, impersonating a trustworthy source to access personal information like usernames, passwords, and even credit card numbers.  Some hackers even have the ability to actually see what is open on your computer.

"[The quiz] will look like a legitimate link, and you will click on it, and [hackers] are able to sort of hijack that session and do something on that other page,” Denning explained.

Once someone or something has your information, opportunities for identity theft are endless.  It is a concept Unified Police Dept. Detective Ken Hansen understands all too well. 

"I would say there's numerous people everyday just in Salt Lake County that are victimized…” Hansen said.  “I’ve even seen the street—the local criminals who have folders on the different people they're trying to collect information on so when they get to a certain point, they've got what they need to do identity theft to start getting money out of your account,” he explained.

Unfortunately, sometimes credit card numbers are not the only things criminals go after.  Hansen says parents need to realize that child predators often use the same strategies.

“They're still out there, and they're looking for that contact information, they're looking for that contact victim..." Hansen said.  “A lot of kids put information out there that just put them a couple of contacts away from being contacted by an offender… Try not to add to anybody's folder.  Try not to put anything out there,” Hansen reiterated. 

Unfortunately, in this day in age, it is almost impossible to stay totally off the radar, but both Denning and Hansen say taking a few key steps will minimize your chances of falling victim. 

1)    Close extra computer tabs.

2)    Use only reputable websites.

3)    Withhold as much information as possible.

Experts say as long as you follow those steps, you should stay safe, so if you enjoy taking quizzes, go ahead and continue using them—just be smart about it.  Be sure and read every privacy policy you can and simply realize it is not always all fun and games.

 


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