Can your adopted pet expose you to fraud?

When registering your animal with a microchip, keep personal data hidden

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Pet own­er­ship has def­i­nite upsides. You get com­pan­ion­ship and exer­cise and the sat­is­fac­tion of doing a good deed. Plus, peo­ple who own pets live longer. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, pet own­er­ship also can make you a tar­get for phish­ers, scam­mers and iden­ti­ty thieves.

Adam Levin, chair­man and co-founder of Credit.com and Cyber­Scout (for­mer­ly IDT911)

With 65 per­cent of U.S. house­holds includ­ing pets (and an esti­mat­ed $60 bil­lion in spend­ing on them), pet own­ers rep­re­sent per­sons of inter­est for scam­mers.

The focus here is on a near­ly uni­ver­sal prac­tice: microchip­ping.

When a pet is adopt­ed, it almost always comes with a microchip implant­ed at the back of the neck. The chip is the size of a grain of rice, and it includes a 10-dig­it num­ber that has been reg­is­tered to the adopter. With more than 94 per­cent of dogs com­ing by way of either res­cue and/or adop­tion accord­ing to the Humane Soci­ety, this is a fer­tile field for fraud.

These microchips can aid in the return of a lost ani­mal, but are far from a per­fect solu­tion. In fact, a study pub­lished in 2012 by the Amer­i­can Soci­ety for the Pre­ven­tion of Cru­el­ty Toward Ani­mals found that after search­ing the neigh­bor­hood and hav­ing the pet return on its own, microchips were the most com­mon way pet own­ers were reunit­ed with their own­ers. In a study pub­lished by the Jour­nal of the AVMA, research revealed that only 22 per­cent of lost dogs enter­ing shel­ters were returned to their fam­i­lies. That per­cent­age rose to more than 52 per­cent when a dog was microchipped.

So there is an argu­ment for microchip­ping. Because there is no uni­fied data­base for these microchips, a found pet may be on any num­ber of reg­istries, which is good news from the stand­point of crime pre­ven­tion, because scam artists can’t just pet-nap an ani­mal, scan it, and con­tact the own­er to col­lect a ran­som. (That said, this sce­nario is the­o­ret­i­cal­ly pos­si­ble. A uni­ver­sal microchip read­er can be pur­chased by any­one.)

Pub­lic-fac­ing data is risky

Many microchip­ping com­pa­nies rec­om­mend that you pro­vide your mobile phone num­ber. It makes sense on the pet recov­ery side of things, but none at all on the pro­tect­ing your­self from scams side—mobile num­bers are fast becom­ing our new Social Secu­ri­ty num­bers.

The basic mech­a­nism of the scam is sim­ple, and you should be wary of it. You will either get an email (which you pro­vid­ed infor­ma­tion to the reg­istry) or a text (to the mobile num­ber you pro­vid­ed), and it will include your pet’s name and some issue that needs your atten­tion. Maybe your dog license is expired. It could be any­thing. The point is that with your per­son­al infor­ma­tion out there in a pub­lic-fac­ing data­base, you’re ripe for the pick­ing. It’s a scam wait­ing to hap­pen, and you have pro­vid­ed the means of your own vic­tim­iza­tion by doing the right thing by your pet.

If you have replied to one of these mes­sages, it’s a good idea to check your cred­it for any changes, because you may have been com­mu­ni­cat­ing with a scam­mer. (You can check two of your scores for free on Credit.com.)

When­ev­er you get an unex­pect­ed mes­sage, how­ev­er you get it, you are in dan­ger of get­ting got. A basic rule of thumb: dis­trust and ver­i­fy. Pro­vide no infor­ma­tion until you’re sure who’s ask­ing for it.

What you can do

You can see if your infor­ma­tion is pub­lic by search­ing for your phone num­ber. You also should search your home and email address­es. Your goal for the best pos­si­ble data hygiene would be that none of that infor­ma­tion yields your name on a search engine.

If you find your infor­ma­tion is out there (and not just in con­nec­tion with a pet), call the com­pa­ny that pro­vides the infor­ma­tion online and ask for it to be hid­den from the pub­lic. While this may slow the process of get­ting your pet back should it go miss­ing, you will still be reunit­ed, while not expos­ing your data to any­one who plugs ran­dom 10-dig­it num­bers into a pet microchip reg­istry.

Full dis­clo­sure: Cyber­Scout spon­sors Third­Cer­tain­ty. This sto­ry orig­i­nat­ed as an Op/Ed con­tri­bu­tion to Credit.com and does not nec­es­sar­i­ly rep­re­sent the views of the com­pa­ny or its part­ners.

More on iden­ti­ty theft:
Iden­ti­ty Theft: What You Need to Know
3 Dumb Things You Can Do With Email
How Can You Tell If Your Iden­ti­ty Has Been Stolen?