What is the Dark Web? What to Do When Your Info Is Found

Despite using it on a daily or near-daily basis, most of us have an incomplete understanding of the World Wide Web—particularly the shadowy, sinister-sounding realm of the “dark web.” But knowledge is power. Knowing more about how the dark web works can help you take proactive steps to prevent your personal information from being shared, bought, and sold there. Keep reading as we dive into the deepest layers of the internet and discuss ways to protect yourself and your data, helping to answer the age-old question: What is the Dark Web?

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Exploring the Dark Web

The World Wide Web—generally referred to by most users as simply the internet—is actually made up of several layers. There’s the surface web, which is where we point our browsers when we’re researching lawn companies, shopping for new shoes or browsing the latest news.

Below the surface web is the deep web. The deep web is made up of content that cannot be indexed by search engines, including encrypted data that must be accessed via password or other keys. When you access your personal email, bank account or medical records portal, you have officially entered the deep web.

What is the Dark Web?

The dark web is technically part of the deep web, but it can’t be reached using traditional browsers like Safari or Chrome. Dark web browsers preserve users’ anonymity, and their online activity cannot be tracked.

Websites on the dark web end in “.onion,” a reflection of the many layers of encryption present on dark web sites. They can be accessed via The Onion Router, or Tor for short.

Despite its reputation as a hotbed of illegal activity, there are legitimate uses for the dark web. Dark web technology was originally developed by U.S. military programmers to anonymously transmit sensitive messages. It’s sometimes used by journalists to protect their sources’ identities. It also provides a venue for news organizations to share information in countries where the press cannot operate freely.

Illegal Activities on the Dark Web

However, it must be acknowledged that a significant percentage of the dark web is devoted to activities that cannot be conducted legally on the surface web. According to a 2015 study conducted by researchers at London’s King’s College, 57 percent of sites on the dark web were used for criminal purposes. This includes activities such as drug sales, illicit finances, and pornography involving violence, children, and animals.

Online marketplaces on the dark web sell a variety of items and information, including passports, Social Security numbers, diplomas, illegal drugs, firearms, malware, stolen credit card numbers, and even passwords for streaming services like Netflix.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that the most popular categories for dark web listings are weapons and drugs, followed closely by hacking and malware content. Other common categories on dark web marketplaces include fraud and counterfeit and guides and tutorials.  

The dark web is also a popular gathering place for terrorists and extremists, with roughly 50,000 such groups maintaining a presence there.

How Personal Data Ends Up on the Dark Web

Cybercriminals have a variety of methods for collecting individuals’ private data for resale on the dark web, including:

Data Breaches

Mass data breaches have become almost commonplace, with a new breach being reported in the news on a regular basis. Risk Based Security reported that in 2019 alone, more than 5,000 large-scale data hacks resulted in the compromise of more than 8 billion records.

Some of the largest breaches that year occurred at major corporations like lab-testing company Quest Diagnostics, credit-issuer Capital One and mobile game-developer Zynga. In 2021, massive data hacks targeted billions of account holders, customers and employees at Facebook, Volkswagen, Android, Microsoft and LinkedIn. Even as companies scramble to step up security to protect consumers’ private data, hackers continue to find new ways to infiltrate their databases and networks.

Open Wi-Fi Networks

The free Wi-Fi access at your favorite coffee shop or library may come at the cost of your data security. When you log onto a public network, other users may be able to access your device and online activity. Even if the network is password-protected, anyone with access to that password can potentially access your device.

If you find yourself needing to use a public Wi-Fi network, always use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) so your activity and personal information will be protected by encryption.

Hacking

Hackers are constantly developing new ways to capture private data. Unencrypted websites (those that begin with “HTTP” instead of “HTTPS”) provide the opportunity to intercept your data through “man-in-the-middle” attacks.

Phishing scams can fool you into clicking on an innocuous-looking link in a seemingly legitimate email, only to result in your computer being infected with malware to capture your passwords and other sensitive information.

Physical Sources

Cybercriminals aren’t above going through your trash to search for Social Security numbers, tax documents, bank account information, and other valuable data. Keep documents containing sensitive information stored securely and shred them if you no longer need them.

Criminals may also contact you via phone, text or email posing as someone who legitimately needs your Social Security number or other personal information, such as an employer, landlord, financial institution or government agency. Before you share these details with anyone, verify that they are who they claim to be as well as the specific reason they need your information.

How to Find Out if Your Information is on the Dark Web

Many financial institutions offer monitoring tools to notify you when your personal information has been discovered on the dark web or suspicious activity has been observed on your accounts. These services scan the dark web for your Social Security number, email address, and other identifying details and alert you if they have been published there. They also monitor your credit report and let you know if any major changes like credit inquiries, delinquent accounts or other significant activities have recently occurred.

However, it’s important to note that these services only inform you that your information may have been compromised, but don’t actually do anything to protect you from further risk or help you repair any damage that may have been done. That burden falls squarely on your shoulders.

What is the Dark Web? What to Do If Your Information Has Been Compromised

First, don’t panic. Even if your Social Security number, email address or other information has been identified on the dark web, it doesn’t automatically mean they’ve been used for financial fraud or identity theft yet.

However, it’s critical to take immediate action to protect yourself and prevent any further damage from the exposure of your information.

Your next steps should be influenced by the type of information that has been compromised.

Financial Data

If your credit card number or other financial details were published on the dark web, you should contact your bank, place a freeze on your credit and report your credit and/or debit card as stolen so replacements with new numbers can be issued as quickly as possible.

Identification Documents

If your driver’s license showed up on the dark web, reach out to your local license office to apply for a new one. A compromised passport means you should report the theft to the U.S. State Department. Contact the Social Security Administration if your Social Security number appeared in a dark web scan.

Contact Information

If your email address appears on the dark web, immediately change the passwords for that email account as well as any other accounts linked to that address. Suddenly receiving a large quantity of spam or spoofed emails is another indication that your email address may have been compromised online.

No matter what type of information was discovered on the dark web, it’s a good idea to run a virus scan on all computers, tablets, and mobile phones you use regularly to ensure that your devices aren’t the source of the breach.

Protecting Your Data from Future Breaches

Once your information has been published on the dark web, there’s nothing you can do to erase it. However, you can take simple, proactive steps to prevent it from being compromised in the first place, including:

  • Use an encrypted password manager to ensure you maintain strong passwords that can be changed frequently.
  • Avoid public Wi-Fi networks unless using a reliable VPN.
  • Enable two-factor authentication on accounts where possible.
  • Establish a “junk” email account that you can use for mailing lists and other activities in which your contact information may not be well-secured.
  • Complete opt-out requests with individual data brokers that exist to collect and sell your personal data (or using a comprehensive service like Removaly to handle the opt-out process for you).
  • Check your credit report for suspicious activity several times a year.

Final Thoughts on the Dark Web and Protecting Your Personal Information

Learning that your personal data has been published on the dark web can be terrifying, but it doesn’t have to snowball into a worst-case scenario. There are important steps you can take to prevent your compromised information from resulting in full-scale identity theft or financial disaster, including changing your passwords, canceling credit cards, and putting a freeze on your credit report.

More importantly, if your data hasn’t yet been identified on the dark web, you should act now to protect yourself from becoming a victim. Set aside some time in the next week or two to enhance your digital hygiene by downloading a password manager, investing in a VPN, and tightening security settings on your devices and online accounts.

Make 2022 the year you take charge of your data security, so that the next time you hear about a massive data breach on your favorite social media platform, or you receive a suspicious-looking email asking you to confirm your identity, you can be confident in knowing your life won’t be turned upside down by identity theft or financial fraud.

Protect Your Personal Data

Let Removaly keep a watchful eye on your personally identifiable information with automated, real-time data removal.

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