You can’t guarantee that you’ll never be the victim of identity theft. This crime is simply too enticing for scammers.In identity theft, criminals steal information such as your Social Security number, address, and birth date and then use it to take out credit cards or loans in your name.
They might also use your personal information to illegally obtain medical care that is eventually charged to you. Or they might rely on your sensitive information to access your bank or credit card accounts, running up unauthorized purchases or draining your savings account.
This crime, then, is so potentially lucrative that criminals continually target potential victims.
There is hope, though: While you can never eliminate the threat of identity theft, you can take steps to lower your odds of becoming a victim. The key is to rely on both common sense and technology to keep your personal and financial information away from the scammers.
Can you prevent identity theft?
No one can completely protect themselves against identity theft. Even if you don’t share your personal and financial information with others, don’t click on suspicious links in email messages, and limit the amount of financial information you share at doctors’ and dentists’ offices, some security aspects are out of your control.
For instance, if a company with which you do business suffers a data breach, your personal information could be exposed and sold on the dark web. Besides not having done business with that company, there is no way to prevent that data exposure from happening.
This doesn’t mean, though, that you shouldn’t take steps to lessen your odds of having your identity stolen.
What are some types of identity theft?
First, it’s important to understand that there are many different kinds of identity theft, and that helping to protect yourself against them might require different steps. Here are some of most common types of identity theft.
Existing account takeover identity theft
This occurs when criminals gain access to your existing accounts, so that they can then make charges to your credit cards, siphon money from your bank accounts, and even file claims against your insurance policies.
New account identity theft
This happens when a thief opens a new account in your name. The thief might take out a personal loan in your name, taking the money from this loan and leaving you with the monthly payments. Or the thief might open credit card accounts in your name and use these accounts to go on a spending spree.
Thieves might use an old-fashioned technique to gain the information they need for this crime: digging your unwanted credit card applications from your mailbox or your trash.
Tax-related identity theft
This occurs when a fraudster submits an income tax return using your Social Security number and fraudulent income data. The thief’s goal is nab your tax refund.You might not discover this crime until you file your own income taxes for the year and discover that someone else has already filed taxes in your name.
Criminal identity theft
This is when a criminal gives someone else’s personal information to a law enforcement official. It could be for something as simple as a minor traffic violation.But if a fine is never paid, authorities could issue an arrest warrant in the identity theft victim’s name — leaving you to figure out what happened and clean up the mess.
Are you an easy target for identity thieves?
Would you be an easy target for identity theft? That depends, in part, on how well you protect your information. It also depends on how well others — the people to whom you’ve entrusted your information — are protecting it.
Consider data breaches involving email accounts. If an identity thief had access to all the information in your email account, what would that include?
Well, possibly everything from old bank and credit card statements to electronic pay stubs to documents you gathered for a mortgage application. Between your inbox and your “sent” mail, there’s no telling what personal information an identity thief would have access to.
Once the identity thief had access to your email account, the fraudster would try to quickly change the password so you couldn’t seize control again.
The message here? Don’t keep your personal or financial information in your email accounts. But the larger message is to hide away this information as best as you can. You want to make it as difficult as possible for scammers to steal your identity.
How to help protect yourself against identity theft
You can’t put a “protected” sign on your personal information like you can when you install a security system in your house, but whether you’re online or out and about, there are ways you can help combat identity theft.Let’s review some of the steps you can take in both settings. These aren’t all-inclusive, but they’re a good start, and they may prompt you to come up with other ways to protect your PII.
Let’s start with where you may be as you read this article — online.
How to help protect yourself from ID theft online
Your online behaviors may have an impact on your risk of identity theft. Here are some tips to keep in mind:
- Be careful with both how and where you share your personal information when you’re on the Internet — whether you’re using a computer or a mobile device.
- Give your home Wi-Fi network a name that isn’t tied to your home. For instance, if your street address is 123 Main St., don’t name your Wi-Fi network “123 Main.” You don’t want to make yourself an obvious target.
- Make sure you give your Wi-Fi network a strong password so those would-be intruders can’t easily access your network and, perhaps, the devices connected to it. Include numbers, symbols and upper-case and lower-case letters to make your password as difficult to crack as possible.
- Make sure the passwords you’re using for online accounts are unique. Using the same password on multiple accounts might make logging into these accounts easier for you. But when sophisticated hackers score a breach using one of your passwords, they may test your stolen login credentials on other accounts, the one for your bank, perhaps. If your credentials are the same for both, imagine the consequences.
- Consider how you use Wi-Fi when you’re on the go. Be wary of logging into accounts such as your bank or credit card portals when on a public Wi-Fi network, even if that network is password-protected. Coffee-shop Wi-Fi passwords are easy for hackers to snatch. With the right tools, a cyber thief on the same network could follow your online moves and capture everything from your login credentials to the credit card information you type in while shopping.
- If you must do business on a public Wi-Fi network, consider using a VPN, or virtual private network. A VPN creates a kind of tunnel to encrypt your data, making it useless to would-be snoops.
- Check your credit reports regularly. You can order these reports free from AnnualCreditReport.com. Once you do, look at the list of loans and credit card accounts in your name. If you see loans and accounts that you know you’ve never applied for, that’s a sign that scammers have stolen your identity. Contact the credit bureaus to inform them of these illegitimate accounts. Call the lenders and banks behind these fake accounts to tell them that you never applied for these loans or credit cards.
- Check your online bank and credit card accounts regularly, too. Look for purchases you know you’ve never made or withdrawals you don’t remember authorizing. These are another sure sign that someone has stolen your identity. Contact your bank and credit card providers immediately if you suspect suspicious activity.
How to help protect yourself from ID theft offline
There are also plenty of precautions you can take while “offline” to help protect yourself from identity theft. Remember, you’re trying to reduce the chance identity thieves will put their hands on your personal information. Consider how they can access it around your home.
- Is your mailbox secure? An unlocked mailbox is an easy target for thieves who steal identities the old-fashioned way. They can grab everything from credit card mailings to your annual W-2 statement. A secure mailbox can be a wise and relatively inexpensive investment to help protect your identity.
- Dumpster diving still happens, too. If you’re throwing away documents loaded with your personal information without first shredding them, you’re making it too easy for identity thieves who are willing to get their hands dirty rifling through your trash. Thieves could obtain vital info from old bank statements, healthcare claims, and other discarded paperwork.
- Do you invite strangers into your home? Not usually, right? But consider the occasional appliance repair person, cable TV installer, or other unknown people you allow beyond the front door. Unless you’re with them throughout their visit, and depending on where you keep your incoming mail or important documents, they might have easy access to your personal information without you ever noticing.
- It may also pay for you to invest in a document lockbox at home or a security deposit box at your bank to safeguard your most important documents.
How to report identity theft
Even if you do everything correctly, you might still become a victim of identity theft. Remember, breaches occur regularly, and companies where you have accounts may be among those hit, putting what is known as your personally identifiable information, better known as your PII, in the wrong hands. Scammers might sell this information on the dark web, exposing it to a network of con artists and cybercriminals.
If you find that you’re a victim of identity theft, the Federal Trade Commission recommends the following steps to report the crime and begin the recovery process:
- Call the companies involved. This means calling your credit card provider or bank if thieves have accessed these accounts. It also means calling any lenders or credit card providers that thieves have worked with to open fraudulent accounts in your name.
- Place a fraud alert and obtain credit reports. You can order free credit reports, to check for unauthorized loans or credit card accounts, from AnnualCreditReport.com.
- Notify the FTC. It’s important to report identity theft. Having this report can help you prove that your identity has been stolen if you need that information to dispute unauthorized charges or loans taken out in your name.
You may also want to file a police report. Look for additional, detailed information on the FTC website.
Consider investing in an identity theft protection service from a private anti-virus service. This service can take some of this work off your hands, and alert you to possible fraudulent activity involving your PII.
The bottom line
It’s important to take the steps necessary to protect your personal information from being lost, stolen, or otherwise compromised. It’s important, too, to recognize that the security of your information is only as strong as the weakest link in a chain that includes the many businesses, government agencies, and other entities that you trust with it.
That’s why it’s so important to regularly check your credit reports, bank accounts and credit card portals for suspicious activity. It’s best to discover identity theft as quickly as possible. It's true that you can’t completely protect yourself from identity theft. But you can at least make yourself a more difficult target for the scammers and con artists waiting in both the offline and online worlds.
Would you know if your Social Security number was being used?
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