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What is the dark web, & how does it affect you?

Fingers typing on a laptop keyboard in the dark

Are you afraid of the dark web?

Around Halloween, we expect monsters in our closets or ghosts in our attics. But where do the scary people of the World Wide Web linger? As Americans realize the threat posed by identity theft, the term "dark web" has made its way into public consciousness. So what is the dark web? How can you know if your personal information is on it? And most importantly, what can you do if it is?

The dark web is the least-accessible part of the Internet

Broadly speaking, the Internet can be divided into 3 pieces. The most visible is the "public web," also known as the surface web, which is composed of public-facing websites that search engines can find. This includes social media sites, news outlets and blogs, online stores, community forums, and other sites that anyone can access freely and easily. While most people spend most of their time on the public web, it only accounts for 4% of the entire Internet.

The vast majority of the Internet—more than 90%—belongs to the second piece, the "deep web." These sites aren't accessible to the general public: They aren't indexed by search engines and don't show up in search results, and they may require login credentials or charge a fee for access. That's not necessarily because they're engaging in illegal activity. Common examples of deep web sites include internal corporate sites, university intranets, and online databases. 

The dark web is the smallest and least-accessible of the Internet's 3 parts. It's not a single place, but rather a collection of websites. Like sites on the deep web, they aren't indexed by search engines, but on top of that they also generally require special software to keep the websites and their users anonymous. 

Public web vs. deep web vs. dark web

Public web

4% of the Internet
• Searchable

• No credentials required

• Not anonymous

Deep web

93% of the Internet

• Not searchable

• Credentials required

• Not anonymous

Dark web

3% of the Internet
• Not searchable

• Credentials required

• Anonymous

The dark web is where your identity may be sold

The dark web's secrecy isn't inherently bad. It's a boon for dissidents living under oppressive regimes and journalists working with anonymous sources, for example. But it's also great for those looking to anonymously buy and sell illicit goods, including drugs, hacking tools, and stolen personal information. The dark web is where criminals often sell the identities they've stolen in hacks or data breaches; if you've ever had your identity stolen, it's likely your information is on the dark web. And once information is there, it can spread quickly to multiple sites—effectively making it impossible to remove.

Stolen information on the dark web can include Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, identifying documents, and login information for all kinds of websites, from online dating and food delivery to banking and healthcare. Bundles of personal records can sell for less than $10 apiece. There are even rankings and reviews of identity thieves so that buyers can be sure they're getting high-quality stolen data. 

While it might seem trivial to have your Netflix or Uber login for sale on the dark web, the real danger is that many people use the same password on all their accounts. Thieves who discover your email and password from a less secure service can try them out on more secure and more important ones like your bank account.

What you can do about it

Unfortunately, most people become aware of the dark web after their personal information is stolen and ends up there. While good security practices can reduce the odds of this happening, there's no perfect way to ensure that your data doesn't eventually make it to the dark web. With that in mind, you can keep a careful watch for warning signs that thieves may be selling your info:

  • Monitor your accounts and statements for any unrecognized purchases or other unusual activity
  • Check your credit report regularly for new inquiries or accounts you don't recognize
  • Use strong passwords on all accounts and change them regularly so past ones that may have been stolen no longer work
  • Use different passwords for every account so that the theft of one doesn't compromise others
  • Know how to respond immediately if you do see suspicious activity
  • Consider an identity theft protection product like ProtectMyID® from Experian
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Don’t wait for thieves to steal your personal information

ProtectMyID® helps you navigate the new reality of constant data breaches, the dark web and more, with multiple levels of identity theft protection coverage. Learn more about the impact of identity theft and how to take control with AAA.

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