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.