Your personally identifiable information, or PII, is any piece of information that could be used to identify you. This could include your full name, Social Security number, driver’s license number, bank account number, passport number, phone number, or email address.
Why does your PII matter? If it's exposed in a data breach, a cybercriminal could sell your information on the dark web. Thieves could then use anything from your Social Security number and birthdate to your bank account information or driver's license number to take out loans or credit cards in your name or access your online credit card or bank account portals.
The same can happen if you accidentally provide your PII to a scammer posing as your credit card provider, insurance company, mortgage lender, or other reputable organization.
Because of this, it's important that you protect your PII. The good news? Doing this mostly requires a dose of vigilance on your part and an ability to recognize the most common scams run by cybercriminals.
How identity thieves can use your PII
Not every piece of PII is equal. Your Social Security number is yours alone. That makes it a key number for anyone trying to steal your identity to take out personal loans or apply for credit cards in your name.
It’s possible — even likely in many cases — that other people have the same name as you. Consider how many "Steve Smith"s and "Maria Garcia"s are out there. While your name is an important piece of PII, identity thieves don’t covet it nearly as much as they do your Social Security number.
It's important to understand the value of different types of personal information. Identity thieves often piece together a potential victim’s PII from different information. They might combine a name with a person’s email address. If they can add in that person's race and hometown, thieves might be well on their way to stealing a victim's identity.
With this information and the Social Security number that goes with it, thieves could have all they need to commit identity theft. That’s why you don’t want to carry your Social Security card in your wallet, where it would rest with all your secondary PII. Your lost wallet could be an identity thief’s dream come true.
Don’t think of this as a minor issue. Identity theft is a big consumer concern. Think of how many department stores, banks, financial services providers, medical offices, and government agencies have suffered data breaches in recent years. In many of these breaches, the PII of consumers — which could include yours — is exposed. Some data breaches expose emails and usernames. Others expose credit card information. The most dangerous expose Social Security numbers.
Once crooks have enough of your PII, they can apply for credit cards or loans in your name, leaving you to deal with a massive amount of fraudulent debt. Others might use your information to access your online bank accounts, draining your funds. Still others might access your online credit card portals, racking up fraudulent purchases in your name. Crooks might even use your PII to pay for expensive medical care, sending the bill to you.
How to keep your PII safe
There isn’t much you can do to prevent a data breach at one of your favorite retailers or at the bank or medical provider you use. But you can check your credit reports — which you can get free at AnnualCreditReport.com — regularly to make sure no one has taken out credit cards or loans in your name. If they have, they’ll show up on your reports.
You should monitor your bank and credit card accounts regularly, too. Look for suspicious withdrawals or purchases you know you didn’t make. Both are signs that someone has used your PII to steal your identity.
If you notice something unusual on your credit reports or bank or credit card accounts, immediately call the companies involved. This means calling your credit card provider or bank if thieves have accessed these accounts. Call any lenders or credit card providers that thieves have worked with to open fraudulent accounts in your name.
Place a fraud alert with the national credit bureaus of Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion.
Be sure, too, to notify the FTC. It’s important to report identity theft. Having a report on file 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.
But while you can’t stop a data breach, you can protect your PII from scammers who try to trick you into surrendering it. They might do this by pretending to be your credit card provider or bank, requesting that you click on a link to keep your accounts active. Once you do, you’re taken to a new website where you are instructed to enter your PII. Once you do, the scammers behind what are known as phishing emails have your information.
Learn to recognize these scams: Your bank, credit card provider or any reputable service agency or government body will never ask for information such as your Social Security number, account number, birth date, or address by email. If you get a message requesting this PII, delete it. It’s certainly a scam.
There are other ways to keep your PII safe, too:
- Limit what you share on social media. Sharing too much information can give criminals valuable information about your location, age and birthdate.
- Shred important documents before discarding them. Thieves still aren’t above dumpster-diving to snag your PII.
- Never hand over your Social Security number just because someone asks for it. Make sure they need it. Ask how they'll protect it.
- And again, store your Social Security card in a safe place, not in your wallet.
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