You’re being tracked online. The sites you visit, the products you purchase, even the location of your computer. It’s often a way for marketers to learn what products you like so they can better target their messaging. But sometimes it can pose a risk of identity theft.
Advertisers want to know who you are and what you do. They do this using an internet or browser “cookie.” When you visit a website, you get a cookie.
What’s a cookie?
An Internet cookie is a unique ID that is part of your browser history. It stays with you as you jump from page to page within a site, and from site to site across the internet. Over time, these cookies create a data cache that’s valuable to advertisers who are trying to learn your interests and habits.
So if you’re doing an online search for information and great deals on winter clothing, advertisers will see a pattern in your cookie history and develop a profile. If they determine you’re a good sales prospect, you might suddenly see ad after ad trying to sell you everything from wool coats to a tropical vacation.
How hackers mine cookies
Some people view such tracking as an invasion of privacy. Other people see it as a great way get advertising that’s relevant to their interests.
But hackers see cookies as a way to piece together profiles for their attacks.
You may be hunting for a great deal and being hunted at the same time.
Identity criminals can use your cache of cookies to show them where to set their traps. To do that, they may create websites that look a lot like the legitimate sites you frequent. But, in this case, the sole purpose of the bogus website to ask you for personal information and steal it. This could range from your name to your Social Security number.
Protect yourself against identity thieves
What are your options?
One option is to delete Internet cookies. Most online browsers have the ability to clear the cookie cache and browsing history. The challenge is remembering to do it. And websites where you have a personal account will reload your unique cookies every time you visit.
Another option is to opt out of advertising. While all organizations give you the choice to opt out of their email advertising, not all of them let you opt out of their cookie tracking. Online businesses and advertising organizations are now using sites such as www.aboutads.info to give you the choice of opting out of cookie tracking.
Cookies can be effective for advertisers and convenient for customers. But be wary of emails or websites that appear to come from legitimate sources but request personal information.
Editor’s note: This content was lightly edited and updated on March 30, 2018.