Identity Theft is when someone steals your personal information and uses it without your permission. It happens to more than 11 million Americans every year and can cause trouble with your finances, credit history and reputation. It can also take time, money and extreme patience to resolve.
How common is identity theft? Even if you haven’t been victimized, when you hear news of another significant data breach or a friend tells you a story of ID theft woe, you may wonder if you’re next—or if it’s something you need to worry about at all.
The 2018 Identity Fraud Study released by Javelin Strategy & Research determined that 16.7 million people in the U.S. were victims of identity theft in 2017, up from 15.4 million in 2017, with $16.8 billion total stolen.
What are the most common types of identity theft? The Federal Trade Commission, the government agency that maintains a sort of warehouse for identity theft complaints, says the crime falls into six major categories:
- Employment- or tax-related fraud (34%)
What it is: A criminal uses someone else’s Social Security number and other personal information to gain employment or to file an income tax return.
- Credit card fraud (33%)
What it is: The thief uses someone else’s credit card or credit card number to make fraudulent purchases.
- Phone or utilities fraud (13%)
What it is: The criminal uses another person’s personal information to open a wireless phone or utility account.
- Bank fraud (12%)
What it is: The fraudster uses someone else’s personal information to take over an existing financial account or to open a new account in someone else’s name.
- Loan or lease fraud (7%)
What it is: A borrower or a lessee uses someone else’s information to obtain the loan or lease.
- Government documents or benefits fraud (7%)
What it is: The criminal uses stolen personal information to obtain government benefits.
(Percentages add up to more than 100 because some complaints involved more than one type of identity theft.)
How do thieves get your information? Thieves are resourceful and will work to get the details they want. In addition to targeting your computer or electronic devices, they may rummage through your garbage, the trash of businesses, public dumps, or may pretend to work for legitimate companies to convince you to reveal personal information.
How do you know if you’ve been targeted? Identity thieves can drain your bank account, run up charges on your credit cards, open new accounts, get medical treatment on your health insurance and in some extreme cases, even give your name to police during an arrest.
Here are some clues that may indicate that someone is using your identity:
- Unexplained withdrawals from your bank account
- Missing mail
- Calls from debt collectors for debts that you don’t recognize
- Unfamiliar accounts on your credit report
- Bills for services or goods that you haven’t received
- A condition on your medical records that you don’t have
- A notice from the IRS that more than one tax return was filed in your name or that you have income from an employer that isn’t yours
- A notice that your personal information was compromised by a data breach (Always take these seriously!)
What are the steps to take if you are a victim of identity theft? The Federal Trade Commission recommends that if your wallet, Social Security card, or other personal, financial or account information are lost or stolen, place a fraud alert on your credit file. Check your bank and other account statements for unusual activity. Order a free copy of your credit report periodically to monitor your accounts. You have a right to one free copy of your credit report from each of the national credit reporting companies every year. If you stagger your orders, you can get a credit report every four months.
In addition, create a log of telephone calls and keep copies of documents related to the loss.
How can you protect your identity?
- Safeguard your personal information, whether it is on paper, online, or on your computers and mobile devices.
- Lock your financial documents and records in a safe place at home and lock your wallet or purse in a safe place at work.
- Limit what you carry. When you go out, take only the identification, credit, and debit cards your need.
- Before you share information at your workplace, a business, your child’s school or a doctor’s office, ask why they need it, how they will safeguard it, and the consequences of not sharing.
- Shred receipts, credit offers, insurance forms, physician statements, checks and all similar documents when you no longer need them.
- Consider opting out of prescreened offers of credit and insurance by mail.
- Before you dispose of a computer or mobile device, get rid of all the personal information it stores.
- Keep your computer browser up-to-date and use security software.
- Don’t overshare on social networking sites.
- Avoid phishing emails.
- Be cautious about Wi-Fi. Don’t use a public wireless network to send personal information.
- Lock up your laptop. Don’t use an automatic login feature and always log off when you are finished using it.
- Read privacy policies to know how your information will be used.
- Use two-factor authentication to verify your identity by receiving a text message or email when you use a new device to sign in.
- Treat your mobile devices with the same care that you use to guard your desktop or laptop. Secure them with passwords, security software and encrypt any stored data.
- If you're not planning to apply for new credit anytime soon, consider freezing or pacing a fraud alert on your credit reports with the three major bureaus. This will halt any new credit being opened in your name. The downside is that if you want to apply for a loan, you would have to lift the freeze or give permission to access your report first.