Census Data Released | A Gift to Identity Thieves, Cyber Scammers?

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If you haven't heard, the National Archives recently released the full record of the 1940 US Census.  The release was so popular that the 1940 Census page set up by the Archives received 22.5 million hits within three hours of the data being posted; the server that hosts the page was overwhelmed and began suffering service outages.  Even Robert Groves, the current Census Director, encountered problems when trying to look up information on his own family as part of a ceremony at the National Archives in Washington DC.

This isn't the first time that census records have been released, of course; new records are released every ten years after a legally-required 72-year waiting period has expired.  This is the first time that the records have been released online, however, and some IT security experts worry that it's not just genealogists and those who want to learn more about their family history that are excited to see the information being placed on the Internet.

The concern is that identity thieves and other criminals could use this census data as a starting point for new scams.  While it's true that 1940 was a long time ago, there are still 21 million people alive who were counted on that census and who now fall into an age group that is being increasingly targeted by identity theft scams.  An easily-searchable database that could reveal tidbits of information on these individuals can give identity thieves a strong start, since having at least a few pertinent details about a potential victim's past and family could be enough to get the potential victim to reveal more current information.

This isn't a new tactic, of course.  Identity thieves use it all the time, mining personal data from Facebook, data breaches and other sources and using it to try and get you to reveal additional information.  The release of the 1940 census data is just another potential source of information for the thieves and scammers who would try and target those individuals that they think are easy victims.

Maneesha Mithal, the associate director of the Federal Trade Commission's Division of Privacy and Identity Protection, admits that there is an "increased risk of identity theft" whenever there is more information available about us.  This isn't restricted to one source of information, either... the data could come from public sources such as the 1940 census and the Social Security death index or from things that you post on Facebook, Twitter and Google+.  Interestingly enough, neither Mithal nor anyone else in her division were consulted on how to handle the release of this data online.

While I know that the public has a right to have information such as this released, it's important that we all remain aware of the potential risks associated with the release of any records that contain personal information.  We all must stay vigilant against potential scams, and also must take the time to alert our parents or other relatives who were alive during the census period as to the potential risk of scams and data miners.  Remind them to never give out any personal information over the phone or to other sources that they can't verify, even if that source seems to already have some basic information about them and their lives.

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