ID Theft Resources

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03 July, 2023

How to help prevent identity theft: 16 security tips


Dan Rafter

Contributing writer

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A woman reads about how to prevent identity theft on her laptop while sitting with her child.

Knowing how to help prevent identity theft is everything in today’s digital age. Why? Because no one wants to wake up to calls about unauthorized credit card charges or Instagram alerts about fake accounts created in your name. To help you learn how you can find ways to avoid identity theft, we’ll cover the different types, how scammers get your information, and how you can take steps to help protect yourself using identity theft protection services like LifeLock, which scans for potential data leaks, monitors your credit, and can help restore your identity.

What is identity theft?

A graphic explains how identity theft works, a topic you must understand when learning how to prevent identity theft.

Identity theft is when someone steals your personal information and impersonates you in an attempt to gain access to your sensitive data, money, and other personal assets.

Identity thieves may use your personal information to:

  • Take out a loan in your name
  • Apply for new lines of credit or create new accounts
  • Avoid giving their own information during an arrest
  • Use your medical insurance
  • Cash in on your tax return

What the identity thief is after will determine what kind of theft you’ll have to deal with. Understanding the different kinds of identity theft tactics can help you learn what identity theft warning signs you should be on the lookout for and who is most vulnerable. 

6 types of identity theft + ID theft warning signs

Put yourself ahead of today’s identity thieves by learning about six of the most common types of identity theft used to compromise your sensitive data and replicate your identity.

1. Financial identity theft 

A graphic describes financial identity theft, a type of identity theft to keep an eye on when learning how to avoid identity theft.

How it occurs: An identity thief gets your personal information and uses it to make purchases, open accounts, and steal your money.

Potential targets: Adults, seniors 

Many know financial identity theft as the most common type of identity theft—with 47% of surveyed Americans saying they were targets in 2020. This happens when an identity thief attempts to steal passwords, phone numbers, emails, addresses, Social Security numbers, and other types of personal data to use for their own financial gain.

ID theft warning signs include: 

  • Unexpected purchases on your credit statement
  • A new credit card or loan in your name
  • Unexplained debt

2. Synthetic identity theft 

A graphic describes synthetic identity theft, a type of identity theft to keep an eye on when learning how to avoid identity theft.

How it occurs: An identity thief blends stolen credentials together to create fake personas from real identities.

Potential targets: Adults, seniors, minors 

Labeled as the fastest growing type of identity fraud, synthetic identity theft involves creating fake identities with real people’s information. Identity thieves can blend stolen addresses, birthdates, and Social Security numbers to make fake personas. They may then use those identities to carry out the usual crimes associated with identity fraud, such as credit card and insurance fraud.

ID theft warning signs: 

  • Compromised Social Security number 
  • A new credit card or loan in your name
  • Unexplained debt

3. Medical identity theft 

A graphic describes medical identity theft, a type of identity theft to keep an eye on when learning how to avoid identity theft.

How it occurs: An identity thief uses another person’s medical insurance to get prescriptions, access healthcare services, and obtain medical supplies.

Potential targets: Adults, seniors 

As surprising as it may seem, medical identity theft is a very present threat—in 2022, there were an average of 1.94 healthcare data breaches per day that affected 500+ records. You’ll see this when someone attempts to use another person’s exposed medical insurance information to receive the care they may not be able to afford on their own.

ID theft warning signs: 

  • Unexplained medical bills 
  • Maxed-out healthcare coverage 
  • Denial of medical coverage notices for issues you don’t have
  • Unpaid medical debt listed on your credit report 

4. Tax identity theft

A graphic describes tax identity theft, a type of identity theft to keep an eye on when learning how to avoid identity theft.

How it occurs: An identity thief uses your personal information or falsified information to file and collect a tax return on your behalf.

Potential targets: Adults, seniors, minors

Tax identity theft occurs when someone files and collects a tax return on your behalf. There were over 78,000 reports of tax identity theft in 2022, making it the fourth most common form of identity theft. If this happens to you, respond to any IRS notices immediately and fill out an identity theft affidavit with the IRS if someone has filed in your name.

ID theft warning signs:

  • IRS notification of an action you didn't take
  • Receiving tax documents in the mail that don’t reflect your income correctly
  • IRS falsely assigns you an employer identification number (EIN)
  • You’re unable to e-file your tax return
  • Someone else has claimed your dependent

5. Child identity theft 

A graphic describes child identity theft, a type of identity theft to keep an eye on when learning how to avoid identity theft.

How it occurs: A criminal uses a child’s personal information to open new accounts/lines of credit, create fake IDs, and/or make large purchases.

Potential targets: Minors 

It’s hard to believe someone would target a child to pursue their own malicious endeavors. However, child identity theft has become a genuine issue, reaching more than 1.2 million victims in 2021. Criminals may attempt to use a minor’s name, address, and/or Social Security number to open a new line of credit, create a fake driver’s license, or even purchase a home. Victims often only become aware once they try to apply for a student loan or open their first credit card.

ID theft warning signs: 

  • Unexplained bills in a child’s name 
  • Debt collection notices via phone or mail issued for a child 
  • IRS letters notifying you that a child owes taxes 

6. Criminal identity theft

A graphic describes criminal identity theft, a type of identity theft to keep an eye on when learning how to avoid identity theft.

How it occurs: A criminal provides your personal information at the time of their arrest instead of their own.

Potential targets: Adults, seniors, minors 

Criminal identity theft occurs when a person arrested by law enforcement provides your name and other identifiable information instead of their own. They could potentially do this by getting their hands on a stolen driver's license or creating a fake ID.

ID theft warning signs: 

  • Receiving a court summons in the mail 
  • Unexpected bench warrants for your arrest 
  • Failed background checks

How to help prevent identity theft

A graphic lists protection tips that can help you learn how to prevent identity theft.

Use these identity theft protection tips to send a message to cybercriminals at large that they might want to find another line of work.

1. Protect your Social Security number 

Always protect your Social Security number—to identity thieves, it's like finding a pot of gold. If someone asks you to provide your SSN, always ask why and never hand it over if you can’t guarantee its protection. Other best practices include storing it in a safe place and shredding all paperwork containing the number before throwing them away.

2. Check credit reports regularly 

Keeping an eye on your credit score and reviewing reports on a regular basis can help you to catch suspicious activity early on. Additionally, some institutions offer free weekly credit reports—all in an effort to help you stay vigilant and try to put fears of identity theft at bay. 

3. Implement a credit freeze

You can implement a credit freeze with the three major credit bureaus. This blocks anyone from opening new lines of credit or taking out a loan in your name. You can freeze and unfreeze your credit at any time, so consider maintaining a freeze until you’re ready to open a new account or apply for a loan if you’d like to help prevent identity theft.

4. Use a firewall

Firewalls are software or hardware that help block unwanted traffic between your devices and the internet. Some computers will have a built-in firewall, but you can also purchase one for added protection. 

5. Shred personal documents 

If it’s easy to access your financial documents—online or physical copies—then potential thieves can use them to impersonate you and gain access to your accounts. Regularly clear out financial documents you don’t need on your computer and ensure they’re completely deleted.

Whenever you receive mail with your personal information or clear out any physical papers with identifiable information, use a shredder to protect yourself from people who may root through your trash with prying eyes.

6. Get bank alerts

Most banks or other financial institutions will send you automatic alerts—you just need to set them up. Check out your banking app or head to the bank in person if you’re having trouble. These alerts can let you know when money enters or exits your account so you know right away about any fraudulent transactions.

7. Learn about common scams

It’s important to know how common scams work so you can be aware of your risk as you go about your day. Whether you take a minute to research what card skimmers look like so you can avoid sketchy ATMs or how to spot phishing emails, knowing about common scams helps you avoid them.

8. Keep an eye on your mailbox

Mail theft affected almost 1,100 U.S. homes from March 2020 to February 2021. Luckily, checking your mailbox daily is effective in warding off potential mail fraud. You can also get a U.S. Postal Service-approved lockable mailbox, ask trusted neighbors to collect your mail while you're away, or use a vacation hold as needed to keep your personal information safe.

9. Consider using a digital wallet

Whether you use the digital wallet included on your smartphone or download a trusted app, digital wallets can be safer than carrying your physical wallet and cards around. This is because digital wallets encrypt your information, effectively hiding it from skimmers or hackers.

10. Safeguard mobile devices

It’s important to secure your mobile devices to protect against identity theft, as spyware is among the main threats to your mobile security. Remember to always lock your phone and to only download trustworthy apps. 

11. Wipe electronics before disposing of them

When you’re purchasing a new phone, laptop, or other electronics, it’s important to properly dispose of your old device. Whether you’re selling, donating, recycling, or throwing it in the junk drawer, do a complete system wipe to reduce your risk if it ends up in the wrong hands.

12. Use a VPN

Identity thieves often monitor public Wi-Fi networks to try and steal unprotected information from vulnerable users. If you are on public Wi-Fi, use a VPN to encrypt your data and activity so cybercriminals can’t track your digital footprint. 

Norton Secure VPN helps you use public Wi-Fi safely so you can use your devices freely without wondering if hackers are monitoring your activity.

13. Use strong passwords

Creating strong, unique passwords for all of your online profiles can make it difficult for identity thieves to use hacking methods like credential stuffing and password spraying to break into your accounts. Password managers are great at helping you create and organize hack-proof passwords.

14. Enable two-factor authentication

Enabling two-factor authentication on your accounts can help prevent identity thieves from getting into accounts and databases that hold your most important information. With the help of biometric protection from fingerprint scanning and facial recognition, replicating your identity becomes next to impossible.

15. Install antivirus software

Using antivirus software like Norton 360 Deluxe can help add an extra layer of protection against common identity thieves. This can make getting access to your private information much harder and allow you to use your devices with a sense of confidence. 

16. Be mindful of sharing on social media

We share a lot of seemingly harmless information on social media that can be used by scammers. Before you post or share anything, consider whether or not the information could be used against you. For example, a throwback post showing off your first car seems innocent, but potentially reveals the answer to a common password recovery question.

17. Protect your identity with LifeLock Standard

There are many identity theft protection tools available that can take some of the guesswork out of keeping you and your family safe from identity theft. While there’s no guaranteed way to avoid identity theft, tools like LifeLock do the heavy lifting for you to guard against identity theft, catch it if it happens, and restore your identity after an incident.

LifeLock standard constantly monitors the dark web and scours the Internet for your personal information to detect leaks. If identity theft occurs, it includes $1 million in coverage for lawyers and experts if needed to restore your identity, and expert support to help you recover your identity if it's stolen.

How to report ID theft 

Help protect your personal information and bring criminals to justice by submitting a report if you become a victim of identity theft. Here are the steps you can take: 

  • Contact a credit bureau: TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian are legally required to report instances of identity fraud with one another once notified.
  • Contact the authorities: The Federal Trade Commission offers personalized recovery plans, guidance, and pre-filled letters and forms on to assist you once you contact the police. You can also speak to someone for assistance if you call by phone at 1-877-438-4338.

How do identity thieves get your information?

It’s easy to understand how a robbery works, but you might be wondering how exactly identity thieves conduct their crimes. Here are some common ways identity theft occurs:

  • Hacking: Hackers can gain access to your computer or phone if it’s not properly secured with strong passwords.
  • Phone or wallet theft: Thieves can gain your personal information via pickpocketing or other forms of theft. The same goes if you lose your wallet.
  • Stealing mail: Thieves can steal mail from your mailbox to gain access to sensitive information.
  • Phishing: Hackers can send emails, texts, or phone calls impersonating companies or authorities to get you to share personal information.
  • Credit card skimming: Thieves can use devices that steal credit card information just by being close to your wallet.
  • Mass data breaches: Hackers can gain access to businesses’ databases to steal credit card or password information.
  • Monitoring public Wi-Fi: Hackers can monitor public Wi-Fi to gain access to your passwords or credit card information.

With an understanding of how identity thieves get your information as well as how to prevent identity theft, you can move forward knowing you’ve taken the proper steps to help reduce your risk of being affected.

Help keep your identity safe with LifeLock

The lasting effects of identity theft can negatively impact your finances and sense of safety for years to come. LifeLock is there for you every step of the way to help you stay protected from identity theft. LifeLock Standard alerts you of possible identity theft by monitoring for use of your information in credit applications. It sends activity alerts when elements of your identity, like your Social Security Number, are used, so you can take action quickly and work with Restoration Specialists if you’re at risk. It also monitors the dark web for use of your information and notifies you of data breaches. 

FAQ about how to prevent identity theft

Read along to learn the answers to these commonly asked questions about preventing identity theft.

What are three ways to help prevent identity theft?

One of the best ways to help prevent identity theft is to protect your personal information. Three simple ways of that include:

What are some most common causes of identity theft?

Three common causes of information exposure, which can lead to identity theft, are:

  • Mass data breaches
  • Responding to phishing messages
  • Not protecting personal documents and information

How can I find out if someone is using my identity?

You can determine if someone is using your identity by closely monitoring bills, credit reports, and financial accounts to see if there’s any activity you didn’t initiate. You might also consider credit reporting or identity monitoring services to help alert you to suspicious activity.

An infographic showcases different types of identity theft and tips for learning how to prevent identity theft.

Editorial note: Our articles provide educational information for you. NortonLifeLock offerings may not cover or protect against every type of crime, fraud, or threat we write about. Our goal is to increase awareness about cyber safety. Please review complete Terms during enrollment or setup. Remember that no one can prevent all identity theft or cybercrime, and that LifeLock does not monitor all transactions at all businesses.

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