Rates of identity theft in the United States have been rising every year for almost a decade. Costs to the banking community and the Internal Revenue Service are in the billions. Identity theft affects millions of people around the country every year, particularly children, the elderly and those with a significant online presence.
While data security tools and protocols get better every day at protecting our sensitive information, hackers and thieves seem to be learning how to get around new security measures at about the same rate.
Understanding what identity theft is and how it can affect you is paramount to protecting yourself from would be identity thieves. Such breeches in security can cause your financial troubles such as debt or poor credit scores. Even more, knowing how to tell if you have been hacked and how you can set up your digital accounts to best protect yourself from fraudulent attacks might save you from having to deal with identity theft. If you are already a victim of identity theft, there are a few steps you should take immediately to limit the possible damage a thief can do. Keep reading to learn all about identity theft, how it could affect you and what measures you can take to best protect yourself from thieves.
What is identity theft?
Identity theft refers to stealing the private information of a person in order to fraudulently use his or her identity. There are many possible forms of identity theft, most involving the robbery of at least one of the following pieces of information:
- Name, address and telephone number
- Driver’s license number
- Credit card, debit card or bank account numbers
- Children’s personal information
- Social Security number
- Medical insurance account numbers
- Login for online account(s)
Once a thief has access to one or more pieces of personal information, he or she can use that data as an entry point to learn even more about you. This is how many thieves are able to dodge double- and triple-step security verification processes to be able to find your most sensitive information. Sometimes, hackers will comb through whatever information they have available to them to try to hack into your more valuable assets, like your bank accounts. Recently, it has also become popular to open up new lines of credit with stolen identities, a particularly sinister form of fraud that often goes unnoticed by the victim for years. Regularly tracking your spending with apps or a regular review of your account or credit report can help you catch fraudulent or suspicious claims.
If a person takes any of your personal information without your explicit consent for any reason, it is identity fraud. The most common types of identity fraud in the United States are:
- Social Security Identity Fraud occurs when your Social Security Number (SSN) is stolen and used illegally for employment, to open new credit accounts, create new identification documents and more. Because the SSN is used for so many official documents, this is one of the most serious but also common forms of identity theft.
- Tax Identity Theft occurs when someone illegally files a tax refund request in your name without your permission. The IRS has lost billions to tax identity theft.
- Criminal Identity Theft is another one of the top types of identity theft in America. It refers to a person who commits a crime and provides your name and identifying information to police when caught. In this way, the thief’s actual police record remains clean while yours does not.
- Driver’s License Identity Theft is when someone uses your driver’s license to pretend to be you while driving or if ever stopped by the police.
- Financial Identity Fraud refers to when thieves still the banking or credit card information of someone to make fraudulent purchases or withdrawals.
- Child Identity Theft occurs when someone steals the SSN or other identifying information of a child to fraudulently open financial accounts or gain access to products or services. Child identity theft is one of the most pervasive forms of identity fraud, as it can ruin a child’s financial future even before reaching adulthood.
- Medical Identity Theft occurs when someone uses another person’s medical identification numbers to access medical products and services. With rising costs of healthcare, this form of fraud has been on a steady rise.
- Insurance Identity Fraud refers to when a thief steals the insurance identification information of someone to illegally receive products, services or payments. Insurance identity fraud can include medical identity fraud but also the theft of other forms of insurance as well.
How Can You Know If Someone Has Stolen Your Identity
Because of the potential damage an identity thief can do to your financial identity while having access to your information, it is extremely important that you are able to detect if your identity has been stolen as soon as possible. Beyond having a general idea of how much money you have in your bank and credit card accounts, there are ways you can make sure you know about a privacy hack as soon as it occurs:
- Read your financial statements, on paper and online. Make sure you at least give a quick look to your financial statements, however you receive them. Look out for any charges you did not make and any other surprising red flags.
- Know what bills you are expecting. Some people have so little time to organize their finances that they will just pay any reasonably-sized bill they receive without thinking twice. By doing this, you may not notice if you have stopped receiving a bill that you should or started receiving a new bill you do not recognize.
- Check your credit report. Your credit report is a snapshot of your financial history as seen from the point of view of national regulating agencies and, therefore, anyone that runs a credit check on you. You can usually download a free complete copy of your credit report from your bank or directly from one of the agencies. It should include information on your SSN, bank accounts, credit cards loans, outstanding bills sent to collections and more. If there are any accounts or debt you do not recognize on your report, you may have had your identity stolen.
How Can You Avoid Having Your Identity Stolen?
After becoming familiar with all the ways a thief can steal your identity, it is understandable to wonder how you might be able to prevent your identity from being stolen. Luckily, with the rise in privacy breaches there has been a rise in methods and tools to help protect our identity from thieves. Here are some fast and relatively simple ways you can start protecting yourself from identity theft now.
Tips for protecting your identity in your daily life include:
- Pay attention to your purse while shopping at stores and markets around town. Make sure to keep your credit and debit cards in a save place where they are not obviously visible or in danger of falling out.
- Keep you ATM PIN private. There’s nothing worse than having a thief use your secret password to easily withdraw your money.
- Collect mail immediately. If you often let your mail sit outside for a couple days before collecting it, you are putting yourself at higher risk for identity theft. Leaving your mail out can make it easy for potential thieves to learn all the information about you they need to steal your identity.
- Don’t respond to unsolicited requests, for anything. If it looks to good to be true, it probably is. Unsolicited requests both on paper and digitally can be a “spear-fishing” attempt to convince you to hand over more valuable information for the thief to use when adopting your identity.
Some advice for surfing the web without giving away your identity includes:
- Use unique, multi-letter passwords for each account. In this way, if a hacker gains access to one of your accounts, she will not have access to all of your accounts. Make sure your passwords cannot be easily guessed. Make sure to include special characters and numbers to provide an extra layer of security.
- Only shop on secure websites. If you are on a website the 1) does not start with “https” or that 2) does not show a secure lock symbol, do not insert your financial information on that website. It is not secure.
- Do not put personal information on public devices. While you may be tempted to quickly make a purchase with the free airport iPads or open library computers, beware. Private information that you input into public terminals can easily be copied or mined.
- Install a security program on your computer and other devices. An easy way to add an extra layer of security to your digital identity is by installing a tried and trusted security software program. Many of the most popular are compatible across most types of computers, cell phones and tablets and offer live support if you ever have any troubleshooting needs.