Identities are stolen all the time. Identity theft simply refers to the unauthorized use of a person’s identifying information. That can include your name, your Social Security number, street address, email address, credit card, medical records — even your likeness.
Identity thieves use this information in all sorts of ways; they might open a bank account or line of credit, hide from law enforcement, or get a job all as you (or a version of you). They might even go to the doctor as you (and forward you the bill) or file your taxes “on time,” snagging your refund before you do. (the IRS rejected 4.8 million suspicious return filings in 2015 alone.
Sometimes your information is physically snatched, from your phone or wallet or computer, but most times it’s stolen electronically. In recent years, identity thieves have nabbed huge amounts of personal info from retail databases and sold it on the black market — the 2013 Target breach exposed as many as 70 million customers. More often, though, computer software (like malware or ransomware) is hidden in email attachments or as seemingly benign files on the web and, once downloaded, collects logins and passwords. Likewise, phishing and other email scams try to trick users into giving up personal information voluntarily: A website may look just like the one you use to bank, only the login and password go directly to an identity bandit. People in the business of stealing identities can be very creative, and they’re betting on your inattention. As consumers we need to be the manager of our credit and identity.
Take steps to protect yourself from identity theft:
- Secure your social security number. Don’t carry your social security card in your wallet or write your number on your checks. Only give out your social security number (SSN) when absolutely necessary.
- Don’t respond to unsolicited requests for personal information (your name, birthdate, social security number, or bank account number) by phone, mail, or online.
- Watch out for “shoulder surfers.” Shield the keypad when typing your passwords on computers and at ATMs.
- Collect mail promptly. Ask the post office to put your mail on hold when you are away from home.
- Pay attention to your billing cycles. If bills or financial statements are late, contact the sender.
- Review your receipts. Ask for carbon copies and incorrect charge slips as well. Promptly compare receipts with account statements. Watch for unauthorized transactions.
- Shred receipts, credit offers, account statements, and expired cards, to prevent “dumpster divers” from getting your personal information.
- Store personal information in a safe place at home and at work.
- Install firewalls and virus-detection software on your home computer.
- Create complex passwords that identity thieves cannot guess easily. Change your passwords if a company that you do business with has a breach of its databases
- Order your credit report once a year and review to be certain that it doesn’t include accounts that you have not opened. Check it more frequently if you suspect someone has gained access to your account information.
Credit card fraud is the most common. In 2014, there were 17.6 million victims of identity theft in the U.S. — the equivalent of 7 percent of Americans over the age of 16! According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 86 percent of those thefts were credit card or bank account fraud. That’s why most credit card companies include fraud monitoring in their suite of services.
The earliest indicator that you may be sharing your identity with another person is often your credit report: a fraudulent account opened under your name. The three US credit bureaus —TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian — use different data to compile your scores, and not all financial institutions report your activity to all three. Plus, credit bureaus receive information about people at different times, so one bureau may see an issue sooner than another.
If you suspect identity theft contact the following:
- Credit Reporting Agencies – Contact the three major credit reporting agencies to place fraud alerts or freezes on your accounts so that no one can apply for credit with your name or social security number. Also get copies of your credit reports, to be sure that no one has already tried to get unauthorized credit accounts with your personal information.
- Financial Institutions – Contact the fraud department at your bank, credit card issuers and any other places where you have accounts. You may need your ID theft reports from the police and Federal Trade Commission in order to report the fraud.
- Retailers and Other Companies – You will also need to report the fraud to companies where the identity thief created accounts, opened credit accounts, or even applied for jobs in order to clear your name.
- State Consumer Protection Offices or Attorney General – Your state may offer resources to help you contact creditors, dispute errors and other helpful resources.