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How to reduce your fear of cybercrime, and protect yourself

Many Americans are more afraid of ID theft than a physical crime

Summary

Studies show Americans fear cybercrime more than physical crimes, such as a home burglary or a mugging. Experts weigh in on how to reduce your fear of being targeted by ID thieves.

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When it comes to crime, Americans fear the invisible cybercrook far more than they do the crook who’s in plain sight.

In a survey commissioned by CreditCards.com, 46 percent of adults in the U.S. said having their identity stolen would be worse than having their home broken into. Just 27 percent said a home break-in would be worse.

That finding aligns with Americans’ overall fear of cybercrime – a fear, experts say, that’s fueled in large part by the broad reach of data breaches and other cybercrimes, as well as by widespread media coverage of them.

In a 2018 survey by Gallup, cybercrime ranked as the most feared crime in the country. The survey showed that only two types of crime worried the majority of Americans: having their personal, credit card or financial information nabbed by a computer hacker (71 percent) and having their identity stolen (67 percent).

By comparison:

  • 40 percent of American adults feared a home burglary.
  • 37 percent feared a car theft or break-in.
  • 25 percent feared mugging.
  • 24 percent feared terrorism.

For many Americans, the fear of cybercrime is real. Twenty-three percent of American adults surveyed by Gallup reported that someone in their household had personal, credit card or financial information stolen by a hacker in the previous 12 months. That ranked as the top crime experienced by the people surveyed — above identity theft (16 percent), monetary or property theft (14 percent) and vandalism (11 percent).

See related: Should you buy identity theft coverage from your home insurer? 

7 tips to protect yourself against cybercrime

Here are seven tips for guarding against cybercrime – and, hopefully, reducing your cyberanxiety.

  1. Adopt smart practices regarding passwords. Rely on complex passwords with at least eight characters – incorporating uppercase letters, lowercase letters and symbols – rather than easy-to-crack passwords like “password123.” Also, store your passwords in secure places, such as a password manager app; don’t keep them on sticky notes stuck to your computer or desk.
  2. Install and update antivirus software. Don’t ignore alerts that direct you to update the software; ensuring your software is the latest version available could thwart a cyberattack.
  3. Enable two-factor authentication. With this tool, you’re required to provide two pieces of identifying information, such as a combination of a password and a fingerprint, to access an app or online account.
  4. Update the operating systems on your electronic devices. These updates frequently include security improvements or fixes.
  5. Trust your instincts. “If it looks dangerous or too good to be true, it probably is,” Neal O’Farrell, executive director of the Identity Theft Council, said.
  6. Don’t click on a link in an email from a sender you don’t recognize. That link could be a scam designed to trick you into providing personal data.
  7. Report internet scams or viruses. “This helps financial institutions understand what threats exist,” O’Farrell said, “and allows them to steer you away from any possible danger.”

Cybercrime stokes feeling of helplessness

Many experts say they’re not surprised that the fear of cybercrime grips so many Americans.

For one thing, we’re spooked by the fear of the unknown – not knowing how someone might steal our personal data and what might happen to that stolen data, according to Kiersten Todt, managing director of the Cyber Readiness Institute. Making that worse is that many aspects of cybercrime are “confusing and ambiguous,” she added.

“When people hear that their personally identifiable information has been stolen, it is difficult to know the impact of what that means for them. But it is personal to them, and the idea that it can be easily stolen or taken from them by a malicious actor can incite a considerable amount of fear,” Todt said.

Bart McDonough, author of the book, “Cyber Smart,” and CEO of cybersecurity consulting firm Agio, pointed out that the“nebulous nature” of cybercrime stokes a “general feeling of helplessness” when it comes to defending yourself and your family against cybercrime.

Neal O’Farrell, executive director of the Identity Theft Council, cited two other factors that are driving fear of cybercrime. One, he said, is the sheer number of cybercrimes. The other, he said, is the “relentless” media coverage of cybercrimes, particularly major data breaches like the ones in 2018 that hit the Starwood-Marriott hotel chain, Facebook and the Panera restaurant chain.

An estimated 500 million people were affected by the Starwood-Marriott breach, 87 million by the Facebook breach and 37 million by the Panera breach, according to Avast, a provider of antivirus software. In addition to potentially harming millions of people, these three breaches – and a number of others – drew extensive media coverage in 2018.

In 2017 alone, 30 percent of U.S. consumers were notified that their information had been exposed in a data breach, per Javelin Strategy & Research.

“Consumers have been hearing about cybercrimes almost every day for nearly two decades,” O’Farrell said, “and are beginning to believe that either they’re unstoppable or there’s really no will to stop them.”

See related: Child identity theft: Costly, time-consuming and more common

More profitable than drug trafficking

From at least one standpoint, this hand-wringing is warranted.

Cybercrime is the fastest-growing crime in the U.S., with cyberattacks continuing to escalate in size, sophistication and financial harm, according to a recent report from Cybersecurity Ventures, a cybersecurity research company. The report predicts the global cost of cybercrime will reach $6 trillion a year by 2021, up from $3 trillion in 2015. That would make cybercrime more profitable than trafficking in illegal drugs, the report says.

Despite those scary figures, the very fear of cybercrime could prevent consumers from taking steps to beef up their cybersecurity, warned Michael Rose, senior vice president of information technology and payment solutions at New Jersey-based Affinity Federal Credit Union.

“Smaller cyberthreats that are just as dangerous will get overlooked,” Rose said, “because consumers don’t know what to look for and fear only a large, ‘obvious’ attack.”

Further exacerbating complacency, apathy or inaction related to cybercrime is that although it occurs all the time, we don’t see many people being arrested and prosecuted for it, said Gary Hayslip, chief information security officer at Webroot, a producer of cybersecurity software.

In other words, we often can’t associate a crook’s face or name with a cybercrime like a data breach. This goes back to the fear of the unknown tied to cybercrime. In this circumstance, fear is driven, in part, by generally being unaware of the identities of cybercrooks, according to Gary Shiffman, founder and CEO of Giant Oak, a provider of data analytics software used for threat detection.

Therapy, exercise can help ease fear of cybercrime

In terms of how we perceive cybercrime, family and marriage therapist Robin Norris said that while some anxiety about cybercrime is OK – as it keeps you on your toes – anxiety that interferes with your day-to-day routine might mean it’s time to chat about it with a therapist, pastor, friend or relative, Norris said.

“You need to talk about it. It’s always better to talk it out than to bottle it up,” Norris said.

Megan McCoy, a licensed marriage and family therapist who is secretary of the Financial Therapy Association, cautioned that, left unchecked, anxiety can spin out of control. Anxiety festers, she said, when we don’t acknowledge and discuss it.

She recommended exercise (such as yoga or swimming) and mindfulness as two mechanisms for relieving any type of anxiety. Mindfulness, as defined by the University of California, Berkeley, “means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens.”

From a more nuts-and-bolts perspective, Hayslip suggested that rather than being fearful of cybercrime, we should be “aware and vigilant.” Agio’s McDonough noted that we should “opt for calm rather than panic.”

See related: Main lesson after Equifax breach: Protect yourself

“People need to know that they can educate themselves, and they need to follow some basic steps to protect themselves,” Hayslip said. “Nothing is perfect, but with some good education and continuous use of basic security practices, people can reduce their risk exposure – and if they do have an issue, there will be less of an impact because they will know how to respond.”

These kinds of “behavioral decisions don’t require a Ph.D. in cybersecurity and can at least significantly improve your own personal security,” the Identity Theft Council’s O’Farrell said. “You might not be able to stop the next data breach. Your goal is to do whatever you can to make sure your personal information is not in that breach.”

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