image of laptop on tableOctober is National Cyber Security Awareness Month (NCSAM), an annual campaign to raise awareness about the importance of cybersecurity and how individuals might play a part. This year marks the 15th annual NCSAM, co-founded and co-led by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA).

Using the internet for crime is not new but it is becoming more widespread and criminals are becoming more sophisticated. In recent years, we have heard about hacks that stole hundreds of thousands of files of personal identifying information via cyber weaknesses in large companies and social media publishers. That information is sold then on the dark web, a kind of virtual supermarket for criminals looking to impersonate other individuals to create financial fraud of some kind. Buyers or sellers may be individuals, international crime rings or local gangs.

Here in Westchester, the District Attorney’s Office investigates identity theft cases, which often start with some form of cybersecurity breach and the resulting cyber-crime.

During this year, our Investigations Division ADAs have been prosecuting several cases involving defendants who used false identities to give themselves a credible credit history to “buy” luxury automobiles. Investigators say they bought those identities on the dark web. Some were part of a ring, while others seemed to work alone. Either way, dealerships were the target. In several incidents, the defendants posing as other people with fake driver’s licenses and credit histories received on-the-spot financing and drove off the lot with an expensive vehicle-one that would be resold elsewhere. Recently, two men pleaded guilty to one of the scams.

Anyone can fall victim to identity theft or financial fraud but you may not know it until you see charges on your credit card that you do not recognize, you receive a credit card payment alert, or you get a call from a lender asking you to confirm information about yourself. Checking your statements regularly is very important. Sometimes hackers start with a small charge to see if you notice and then build up to something bigger.

Something else to be very cautious about-using public, non-password-protected, wi-fi. Using an unsecured wireless connection could set you up for hackers to access your personal computer and that may mean saved passwords or other data. You might be a target in places like coffee shops, airport or other transit lounges and other public spaces.

Of course, cybersecurity awareness goes beyond individual identities. It may be a hack into a business you work for that is trying to get information about secure operations. In addition, there are national security concerns from breaches that might affect elections to military defense and national secrets. It may not be your job to stop such breaches but awareness of how to protect your own computer, smart phone and online presence can help secure all of us by catching something small before it becomes something big.