BAY COUNTY, Fla. - Do you ever wonder why the same advertisements seem to stalk you around the internet? It's not a coincidence.
People are tracking your every move on the web and all your business on your computer.
As News 13's Alex Thorson tells us in her special report "Identities for Sale", there's an entire industry selling your identity information without you even knowing it.
Every day, we do things to protect what's most important to us. But without even knowing it, our own identities are slipping from our finger tips.
"Everything you put out there can be located. That's the problem. You lose control," Guy Garrett, an associate professor at Gulf Coast State College teaching cyber security, said.
He runs an organization teaching students how to patrol cyberspace and protect their identities.
Garrett said people are oblivious to what is actually out there about them online.
"You have to be proactive in determining what you're willing to expose and what amount of your life you're willing to expose to people," he said.
Deeds, mortgages, marital status and political party affiliation are all included in public records, and easily accessible for anyone to find for free.
"They had all of my addresses back to when I was living in the mid-1990's," Garret said.
"I can probably zoom in exactly on the home, its location, and what's around it. [I can] do a complete profile on the house," he said.
Social media makes it easy for us to stay in touch with distant relatives and network with professionals in our field, but can also make us vulnerable to advertisers and scammers.
"These scams happen all the time. The way they reach you is by finding out what you like," he said.
Every Google search, online purchase, or social media post molds your identity. Even a simple "like" on Facebook is recorded and sold. I put one of Gulf Coast's cyber security students to the test to see how much information he could find about me for free.
He said it took an hour to find out quite a bit of information. He said it was easy, and started simply with a Google search.
"I have an idea of about every thing you did," Stephen Szmur, the student, said.
So what can you do to protect your privacy, beyond just changing your social media accounts to "private" mode?
Garrett recommended several key tips for protecting yourself from hackers:
-freeze your credit when not making big purchases.
-never send important information like social security numbers in texts or emails.
-stop sharing your location on social media.
-even cover the front camera on your computers when you're not using them.
Even if you don't use the internet at all, he says complete privacy is impossible.
"Be born and die. Do nothing at all. Don't engage in commerce, don't live. That reality doesn't exist. People who think it does are fooling themselves," Garrett said.
So who takes the time to create these personal profiles of us?
Tiffany George is an attorney for the Federal Trade Commission's Division of Privacy and Data protection.
"Data brokers collect info from a variety of sources, compile information, and provide it to third parties," George said.
Third parties like advertisers, who zero-in on your interests to sell you a product.
In 2014, the FTC recommended to congress that data brokers be more transparent, and fair to consumers.
"[We would] require the creation of centralized mechanism such as an internet portal. That would allow consumers to go to that site and find about different types of data brokers, what info they collect about them, and what access and opt out services they provide," George said.
Since then, congress has considered several proposals. None of the bills have passed, leaving the average person unprotected.
Congressman Neal Dunn recently sponsored a bill that would protect small businesses from hackers.
It passed in the house last week and now heads to the senate.
If you believe that your information has been illegally compromised, there are steps you can take.
-File a report with the FTC
-Freeze all credit accounts
-Call your local law enforcement
You can also visit: https://www.identitytheft.gov/Info-Lost-or-Stolen for more information.
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