Identity theft is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: A scammer uses your personal information, like your Social Security number, driver’s license number or other financial account information to make a profit while wreaking havoc on your financial life.
Once an identity thief has your information, they can do things like drain your bank accounts, open a new credit card account in your name and charge it up to the limit with no intentions of paying it off, or even open utility or mobile phone accounts in your name. Sometimes it’s easy to spot these things quickly, such as with your bank accounts. But unless you regularly check your credit reports and credit scores, you could miss new accounts being opened in your name until it’s too late.
And identity thieves don’t stop with just your bank and credit accounts or utility services. They also have been known to apply for health insurance, jobs and tax refunds, and even commit crimes while impersonating you. That’s why it’s important to know the signs your identity has been stolen and how to take action if it happens to you.
How Identity Thieves Get Your Personal Information
Identity thieves nab your private information through stolen wallets, bogus websites and computer viruses by combing through your mail (snail mail and email), dumpster-diving behind businesses, posing as employees at legitimate businesses and using skimmers at ATMs to nab your PIN and financial account information.
Identity thieves also strike through data breaches of major retailers and financial companies, and it’s a fast-growing crime. Identity theft has topped the list of consumer complaints filed with the Federal Trade Commission for 14 straight years.
How to Keep Yourself Safe
Identity thieves are out there, and they’re becoming more savvy every day, but there are ways to protect yourself. Like avoiding crime in general, protecting yourself against identity theft involves a series of precautions, none of which are completely foolproof but together give you a better chance of not being a victim. Just like a burglar can break into your house even if you lock all your doors and windows, so too can an identity thief hack, for example, your email account even if you’re using the latest security software to protect yourself.
That doesn’t mean you should stop using security software, of course, it just means you need layers of protection. Be sure to visit only trusted, secure websites, especially for transactions involving your credit or bank account numbers. Make sure your passwords are strong and changed often. Shred your personal financial documents before throwing them away. And, as we mentioned earlier, monitor your credit reports and credit scores free once a month on Credit.com..
This article has been updated. It was originally published June 4, 2014.
How to Protect Yourself From Identity Theft
by Lucy Lazarony
Protect yourself and your finances from identity theft by monitoring your credit and keeping close watch on your private personal and financial information.
To guard against identity theft, follow these financial safety tips.
1. Guard your important personal information. A Social Security number is the prime example of this, although it’s important to keep things like your birthdate, credit card number, and driver’s license number safe too. Only share your information with companies that you trust. And avoid carrying your Social Security card in your wallet — you have it memorized anyways (hopefully).
2. Shred private financial documents with a cross-cut shredder before recycling.
3. Avoid posting bills in your mailbox, where an identity thief can strike. Instead, place your outgoing mail in collection boxes or drop your bills and other mail at the post office.
4. Keep virus and spyware software up-to-date on your laptop and home computer and use firewall software for protection.
5. Use strong passwords to protect your financial accounts. And change your passwords frequently. You should also make sure you follow the advice of experts when data breaches happen – they can tell you whether you need to change your password, get credit monitoring, or do more to protect your identity.
7. Monitor your credit score. With Credit.com’s free tools, you receive a free credit score each month plus expert tips on improving your credit.
An unexpected change in your credit scores could mean an identity thief has opened an account in your name.
For an added level of protection against identity theft, you may wish to sign up for a credit monitoring service so you will receive more frequent updates of changes in your credit file. Always compare identity theft protection plans carefully to make sure you understand the service’s terms.
Help! How Will I Know My Identity’s Been Stolen?
by Sean Bryant
As more and more of our lives move online, the chances of having your identity stolen increases. But with all of the information out there, how do you even know if your ID has been compromised in the first place? What happens when it’s been stolen, and what can you do to reclaim your ID (and repair the damage that has been done)?
Let’s take a look at common identity theft issues, how they work, and what you can do to prevent them.
How Can I Spot a Stolen Identity?
Simply put, identity theft occurs whenever someone else uses your personal information for their own gain. Many people think of identity theft as stealing a credit card or Social Security number. But there are quite a few ways that someone can use that info and your identity-at-large without your knowledge. Here are a some examples:
A thief walks into any post office and grabs a change of address form. The form is marked as a temporary change, and your mail is forwarded to a new address for a few days. Any checks, bills, statements, or greeting cards now fall into the hands of the thief. You are left thinking, “hmm, no mail today” when in actuality a fraudster is mining your paperwork for sensitive details they can put to bad use.
Credit card fraud is huge. Using devices that skim card numbers off the readers, thieves can grab your card and rack up charges. It seems that every year a story comes out about a major company suffering from a breach. Remember that mail that was forwarded? How many credit card applications might be in there?
Using a genuine Social Security number, a thief can file a phony tax return. You go to file your taxes, only to learn the IRS has already paid someone your refund. You now have to go through the process of filling out an Identity Theft Affidavit, among other things, in order to get your refund.
What Are the Odds of Identity Theft?
There are plenty of identity theft statistics out there suggesting the odds aren’t exactly in your favor. For instance, an estimated 13 million consumers fell victim to identity theft fraud in 2015, according to Javelin Strategy and Research’s annual Identity Fraud Study. And IBM reported that in 2014 alone, over 1 billion records, including personally identifiable information, were leaked. That means it’s critical to stay proactive when safeguarding your own identity.
How Do I Stop Identity Theft?
You can’t, unfortunately, short of completely going off the grid. Given the digital age, there’s just too much information at there — there’s no way to guarantee yours won’t fall into the wrong hands. Still, there are steps you can taken to minimize the odds of being compromised, including practicing proper internet safety, limiting who you share your data with, particularly your Social Security number, and shredding documents before trashing them. You could also consider a credit freeze, which blocks lenders from pulling your credit and can prevent fraudulent credit accounts from being taken out in your name. (Note: Credit freezes will be block you from applying for new credit, too. You’ll have to “thaw” your reports prior to filling out an application.) Beyond that, you need to keep an eye out for signs your identity has been stolen.
How Can I Tell if my Identity Has Been Stolen?
First and foremost, monitor your credit regularly. You can do so by viewing our free credit report snapshot, updated every 30 days. You can also get your full credit reports from each major credit bureau once a year by visiting AnnualCreditReport.com. Scan through your reports and see if there is something on there that you don’t recognize — new credit inquiries you didn’t make, mysterious addresses, new credit accounts you never opened. If there is, you can dispute that line item or account with the credit bureaus. (Not sure how? Here’s a complete guide to disputing errors on your credit report.) You’ll also want to contact the creditor and local authorities (more on this in a few.)
Keep in mind, too, if you’re truly worried about identity theft or have direct reason to believe your identity was compromised, you could also consider signing up for paid credit monitoring services.
Weird stuff on your credit report is a major sign your identity has been stolen, but there are other red flags to be on the lookout for. We’ll cover a few more below.
How Can I Tell if Someone Is Using my Social Security Number?
Most of the time you will discover that someone is using your Social Security number, long after the damage has been done. It can happen in a few different ways.
You are living life, mostly debt-free, when creditors start to call. You know you’re caught up on all of your bills, but don’t ignore those calls! Pull a credit report right away to see what account they are talking about.
You go to file your taxes, and you receive a notice from the IRS that you have already filed. Someone has filed a return in your name, and collected a refund that you deserve. Or your taxes are reported as incomplete, and you have unreported income. If this is the case, someone used your Social Security number when filling out their W-2.
You apply for a loan and you are declined because your credit score is too low. You have a long credit history, always pay on time and don’t use too much of your available credit, so what gives? Someone may have racked up debt in your name, and your score is taking a hit because of it.
What if your child starts receiving credit card applications in the mail? This should create a red flag in your mind. Credit card applications typically only arrive after a new credit file has been opened in your name. Note: If your child falls victim to identity theft, there are credit card monitoring services specifically designed to help.
What Do I Do if I Am the Victim of Identity Theft?
You have been careful with your identity, but someone with evil intent has stolen it. You’re now one of the nearly 13 million Americans that are victims of identity fraud every year, and you need to know what to do.
Contact the credit reporting agencies to put a fraud alert on your reports. This alert will last for 90 days. During that period, the credit bureaus will require lenders take extra steps to confirm your identity. You can take it a step further, and put that aforementioned credit freeze on your reports, which will prevent any new applications from going through.
Contact the lender directly. If your credit card was stolen, call the card company and report the theft. If your debit card was stolen, call the bank.
File an identity theft affidavit with the Federal Trade Commission. Call 1-877-ID THEFT and they can help walk you through the steps to make sure the identity theft report is filed correctly.
File a police report. Identity theft is a crime, so you’ll want to report it. Before the identity theft affidavit can be complete, there must be a police report filed.
Contact the Social Security Administration if you believe that your SSN was stolen. Also, alert the IRS because the thief could be planning to steal your tax return as well.
My Identity Has Been Stolen. Now What?
by Gerri Detweiler
It’s sad to say, but there’s a good chance you’ve fallen victim to at least some form of identity theft. Why do we say that? Well, an estimated 13 million consumers fell victim to it in 2015, according to Javelin Strategy and Research. And the company pegged about 12.7 million victims the year before that.
As you may have heard our founder and identity theft expert Adam Levin say, identity theft has become almost a third certainty in life. And, while there are steps you can take to minimize your odds of winding up among those 13 million people, there’s nothing you can do (short of maybe going off the grid) to guarantee you’re never a victim of stolen identity. There is, however, plenty you can do to minimize the damage after that crime has taken place.
What Do I Do About My Stolen Identity?
If you’ve been hit by identity theft, it’s important that you act immediately to prevent further damage to your finances. Here’s what to do.
1. Get On the Phone
Call the bank, lender, card company, utility or merchant with whom you have the affected account. Fast action stops thieves from racking up more charges in your name.
2. Write Down Everything
Grab a notebook. Log every call and contact you make. Note the date, time and length of the call, who you spoke with, what you said and what they said. File copies of documents. Use certified mail for all letters.
3. Find Allies & Resources
Call your insurance agent, bank or credit union and the human resources department at work to ask what access you may have to free or low-cost damage-control programs for identity theft victims.
4. Reset Your Passwords
Make your passwords strong, which means they should include upper- and lowercase letters, as well as numbers and symbols. They also shouldn’t be anything easy to guess: like 12345 or your dog’s name and birthdate.
5. Consider a ‘Security Freeze’
This denies access to your credit to all but your current creditors and helps prevent new account fraud. It’s not always recommended — the freeze also prevents you from authorizing a lender to pull your credit without “thawing” or using a PIN. You can learn more about the pros and cons of credit freezes.
6. Monitor Your Credit
Order your free credit reports. Get a report each from Experian, TransUnion and Equifax. (As a fraud victim, you are entitled to these reports in addition to your free annual credit reports.) Comb them for errors and follow each company’s instructions for disputing an error.
If you want help monitoring your credit, subscribe to a free service, like Credit.com’s free credit report snapshot, which provides two free credit scores. Falling credit scores, among other things, can alert you to fraudulent activity.
7. Make a Police Report
Call the police. Even if they can’t catch the thieves immediately, reporting the crime could help make a case against the thieves down the line. And you may need a police report to prove that charges made in your name are not yours to your creditors and the credit bureaus. You can also file a complaint with the FBI.
8. Dial 877-438-4338
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) makes identity theft a priority. While it doesn’t investigate individual cases, it collects information on crimes and helps police in their investigations.
9. Be Patient
It might be tough to hear when you’re the stressed-out victim of identity theft, but resolving this problem could take some time and work on your part. Take a big breath once in awhile and keep forging ahead. You’ll want to do your due diligence to mitigate an identity thief’s attack.
This article has been updated. It originally ran on December 5, 2013.
Certain credit cards and other financial products mentioned in this and other articles on Credit.com News & Advice may also be offered through Credit.com product pages, and Credit.com will be compensated if our users apply for and ultimately sign up for any of these cards or products. However, this relationship does not result in any preferential editorial treatment.