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Discover is taking a unique approach to thwarting potential fraud by going to where most stolen Social Security numbers are illegally sold: the so-called “dark web.”

Launched in July, the issuer offers a surveillance feature for owners of its Discover it and other credit cards. The opt-in service proactively patrols risky websites on the dark web to uncover any potential threat to their customers’ identities. The company says it is the only major U.S. credit card issuer to offer such a service.

What is the dark web?

The internet is divided into a few categories: the surface web, deep web and dark web. The surface web, or the visible web, includes pages that are public and don’t require passwords or special software to access. Think Bankrate.com or your local newspaper.

Pages that require passwords, like your email and social media accounts, are considered part of the deep web. These are private pages or sites that are password-protected.

Most internet users pass back and forth between these two areas regularly.

The dark web, on the other hand, is an encrypted network that obscures IP addresses and, in effect, keeps users’ identities anonymous. To access the dark web, people must download specific browser software. The Tor network is one of the most popular encrypted networks.

Although the dark web is not inherently bad or illegal itself, its anonymous nature makes it fertile ground for criminals to buy and sell stolen identifying information, like Social Security numbers.

Discover’s surveillance feature

This new feature is available only to Discover’s credit card customers. Known as internet surveillance or internet scanning, this is a free opt-in service created to help people detect fraud beyond their Discover credit card accounts.

Laks Vasudevan, Discover’s VP of Products and Innovation, explains that this service was developed in response to their customers unease about their information being exposed to criminals.

“We know our consumers are worried about security, they’re concerned about their information being up on the web,” says Laks Vasudevan, Discover’s vice president of products and innovation. “So what we do is we actually search these dark websites, these risky websites, to see if their Social Security numbers are found. And, if they are, we immediately alert them and let them know. It’s an early warning system for card members.”

A triggered alert doesn’t necessarily mean fraud has occurred. It’s simply a warning that your information could be vulnerable and to take the proper steps to secure your identity. This could mean placing a credit freeze on your accounts or, at the very least, monitoring your credit reports for new account activity.

Discover also will monitor reports from one of the three big credit bureaus — Experian — which will generate an alert when a new credit card or other loan is added to your credit report. If it turns out that a customer’s identity was stolen, Discover will help walk them through the process of resolving the fraud.

How to avoid fraud online

There are several ways to safeguard your information online, according to the Federal Trade Commission:

  1. Make sure your computers are equipped with up-to-date anti-virus software, anti-spyware software and a firewall. You can adjust your computer’s settings to make sure these safety features are updated automatically and scan your computer regularly.
  2. Don’t click on links from emails or messenger programs. These may be phishing emails and they’re an easy way for cybercriminals to hijack your computer and retrieve passwords and other private information. Even links sent by people you know can be a virus, so before you click on a link reach out to the sender to make sure they actually sent it.
  3. Avoid transmitting personal information over public wireless networks, such as at a library, at the airport or in a coffee shop. If you must send private data, like your Social Security number or credit card number, find out if your information is protected on that network.
  4. Keep your personal information off your computer whenever possible. Using programs that automatically log you in to your bank account or email account could be detrimental to your security if your computer is stolen. If you plan on traveling or taking your laptop out in public, disable automatic login to protect your private accounts.

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