If you live in North America or Europe and are paid over $85,000 a year, you are three times more likely to be defrauded than those who earn less, according to Trustev, an online anti-fraud company. A salary of $85,000 is hardly enough to qualify someone as rich in those countries, but in the United States it would put you in the top quartile of earners (top 6% if you’re single) and far above the national average or median wage.
It sounds obvious: Of course high-earners make for juicier targets than those with less money. But the reasons for this are more complex than bank balances. As with everything else online, it comes down to data. Just as big companies squeeze every last byte of data out of their users to better understand how their products and services are being used (and to sell better-targeted advertisement), online thieves have realized that data can help them steal more efficiently.
“Fraudsters are getting increasingly sophisticated, and will often compare stolen data sets against each other to see if they can connect up and build up better profiles of info on specific individuals,” says Trustev boss Pat Phelan. “The more information they have, the better chance a fraud attempt will be successful, or on a basic level, the more valuable that identity will be to sell on.”
Because high-earners have more disposable income and spend more, their shopping—often at a variety of retailers, for a greater range of products, using multiple credit cards—leaves a bigger data footprint (pdf). That has two effects: First of all, it makes them statistically more likely to fall victim to a random attack on a particular store. And then there is more information for fraudsters to glean from that attack. Data-rich profiles like these are valuable to fraudsters, who know that many online payment processors automatically block transactions originating in some parts of the world, such as Nigeria or parts of the former Soviet Union—even if (or especially if) the credit card is American or European. Deeper data sets allow fraudsters to more convincingly impersonate the victim.
Conveniently for fraudsters, high-earners are also less likely to notice when a fraud attempt is underway. Fraudsters often make a small transaction first to confirm that a card is usable. If that goes through without a response, they then clean the account out—topping out the credit limit—in one fell swoop. People with lower incomes are much likelier to keep a close eye on their finances and to notice a stray transaction. But richer people are less likely to notice a few dollars here or there, says Phelan. That is what fraudsters count on.