When I got scammed of $5,700 in late June 2013, I only found out after a store refused my personal check.
The damage had been done.
That’s the reality of identity theft. You usually don’t know until it’s too late.
And if I hadn’t walked into that store, the financial losses could have been even more disastrous.
Millions of Americans suffer from identity theft yearly. Identity theft happens when someone uses your personal information to steal money or commit crimes.
I lost six thousand dollars, which is a lot of money. But it could be worse for others.
For example, your child’s credit may be used to rack up debt. And you’ll only realize when they’re old enough for college.
Scammers might also apply for fraudulent tax returns using your identity. Unfortunately, you may never know until you receive IRS notices and letters.
It gets worse.
Elder fraud is on the rise. So, scammers may target your parents with spear phishing schemes, defrauding them of Medicaid and insurance coverage.
Knowing when someone is using your identity can be crucial. It’ll help you stop the damage earlier and quickly seek government agency resolution.
So, I’ve compiled this list of tips to help you identify identity thieves and what you should do.
It’s important to know that the tell-tale signs below also apply to the elderly or children.
Credit: Rudzhan Nagiev
How to Check if Someone Is Using Your Identity
- Stolen Tax Refund
- Missing or Unexpected Mail
- Suspicious Phone Calls, Emails, or Text Messages
- SMS Verification Codes You Didn’t Initiate
- Unexplained Charges or Withdrawals
- When You Lose Sensitive Documents
- Getting Credit Cards You Didn’t Apply for
- Medical Bills for Healthcare You Didn’t Receive
- Calls or Collection Notices for Unknown Debt
- When You’re Denied Application for Credit or a Credit Card
- Unemployment Insurance Fraud
- A Warrant for Your Arrest
There’s an identity theft case every 22 seconds.
Below are signs that someone has stolen your identity without your knowledge:
1. Stolen Tax Refund
This is because not many people have experience dealing with the IRS.
So, fraudsters might impersonate IRS agents and attempt to deceive you into sending them personal information or granting them access to your tax refund.
When an identity thief has your information, they can impersonate you by declaring income that qualifies you for a tax refund.
You may find out about this fraud when you file your taxes and learn that someone has already filed a return using your Social Security Number.
Another sign is receiving a tax form, such as a W-2, from an organization you never worked for.
If any of these happen, contact the IRS and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). You can check your tax return status online via the official IRS website.
✎ Related: Signs Your Tax Identity Has Been Compromised ➔
2. Missing or Unexpected Mail
If you haven’t received a monthly statement or any other expected mail in a few months, someone may be using your identity.
Identity thieves can change your email or mailing address so you don’t see fraudulent charges.
They may also remove physical mail from your mailbox.
As such, the post office may notify you that your mail is being forwarded to a different address despite not requesting a change of address.
Unfamiliar mail can also indicate someone is using your identity.
Receiving letters from companies you don’t recognize or credit card statements may indicate a loan/mortgage fraud.
This means that someone is making credit card or loan applications in your name, possibly accumulating fraudulent charges.
To protect yourself, ensure you keep track of mail. If you get unrecognized mail or don’t receive expected mail, report it to the US Postal Inspection Service.
Learn more about mail identity theft here.
3. Suspicious Phone Calls, Emails, or Text Messages
Getting suspicious emails, text messages, and phone calls can indicate that someone is using your identity.
Although robocalls and automated voicemails may be easy to spot from the “Scam Likely” ID label, you should still be concerned.
Unsolicited calls and voicemails from a credit card company may imply that someone is using your identity to apply for credit cards. Or they want to open new bank accounts using your name.
Another sign is receiving strange emails. This could be a result of a data breach.
Scammers might send phishing emails asking you to “reset your password” or perform an action that requires you to click a link.
4. SMS Verification Codes You Didn’t Initiate
Two-factor authentication (2FA) adds an extra layer of security to your account.
Even if someone has your login credentials, they still need a code sent to your phone number to access your account.
Services like Gmail, Facebook, Amazon, and PayPal often send verification codes to verify your identity.
So, what if you receive an SMS with a verification code you didn’t request? It means an identity theft may have successfully decoded your password.
Unfortunately, scammers have found a way around 2FA with a new scam called SIM Swapping.
That’s why I recommend using authentication apps like Google Authenticator or Microsoft Authenticator to receive 2FA codes.
5. Unexplained Charges or Withdrawals
It’s important to always check your banking statements every month.
Ensure you recognize each transaction.
Criminals often make small purchases first to see if you or your financial institution flags them. If you ignore these small charges, they will make larger ones that might be disastrous to your financial health.
Report any unexplained charges or withdrawals to your financial institution immediately.
You should also place a fraud alert with your credit bureau if you suspect someone is using your identity.
6. When You Lose Sensitive Documents
Suppose you notice that one or more of your personally identifying documents are missing or stolen. In that case, someone may be using your identity.
Or they’re about to.
Ensure you know where your Social Security Card, passport, driver’s license, debit/credit/insurance card, etc., are at all times.
You don’t have to carry them everywhere you go. Don’t keep your Social Security Card in your wallet or car’s glove box.
Traveling with only one or two credit cards and your driver’s license is best.
✎ Related: What To Do If Someone Steals Your Driver’s License? ➔
7. Getting Credit Cards You Didn’t Apply for
One of the most obvious signs that someone is using your identity is when new financial accounts are opened in your name.
Some fraudsters open new credit accounts to make purchases. Others may set up phone and utility accounts.
If you receive a credit card you didn’t apply for, contact the issuing company immediately. The same applies if you receive statements from unknown accounts.
These are potential identity theft red flags that you shouldn’t ignore.
✎ Related: Common Credit Card Scams and How to Avoid Them ➔
8. Medical Bills for Healthcare You Didn’t Receive
Identity thieves, especially those without access to insurance benefits, may use your personal information to obtain medical care.
This is called medical identity theft.
Fraudsters may also get prescription drugs, buy expensive medical devices, or claim reimbursement.
According to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), there are about ten types of Medicaid fraud. You can find a list of these fraudulent medical activities and how they happen here.
To protect yourself, review the Explanation of Benefits statements on your medical bills for any services you didn’t get.
9. Calls or Collection Notices for Unknown Debt
Some people may get calls or collection notices for unknown debt, which indicates someone is using or may have used their identity to rack up debt.
Don’t assume the call or email is an error.
If a debt collector contacts you, find out details of the debt. And if you’re sure the debt isn’t valid, send a letter to the collection agency within 30 days to request proof of the debt and creditor.
This applies to your kids. If your children receive emails from the IRS or other debt collectors claiming debt owed, their identity might have been stolen.
✎ Related: Debt Collector Scams – How To Avoid Them? ➔
10. When You’re Denied Application for Credit or a Credit Card
If you have good credit and haven’t reached your credit limit, a denial on a credit card application may indicate identity theft.
It’s important to ask why your credit or credit card application has been denied.
Identity thieves won’t pay the debt they owe, which can ruin your credit score.
11. Unemployment Insurance Fraud
Unemployment benefit is one of the most common government programs available. Unfortunately, it is highly susceptible to fraud.
For example, one in five dollars of the Pandemic Unemployment Benefits was paid to fraudsters.
Identity thieves could use your personal information to apply for unemployment benefits.
If you apply for unemployment and are denied, it could be that someone is using your identity. You may also receive a notice from your employer or state’s unemployment insurance about a claim you didn’t file.
Although the unemployment payments are made to the scammer’s accounts, some victims receive them in their accounts.
In that case, the fraudster may try to deceive you into sending the money by impersonating a state unemployment agent.
Unfortunately, you may get into more trouble if you’re involved in this scam.
If you suspect you might be a victim, notify your employer and report to your state’s Department of Unemployment Security via the Department of Labor website.
You should also take advantage of specialized recovery steps from the FTC for unemployment fraud victims.
12. A Warrant for Your Arrest
Although this might sound extreme, a court may issue a warrant for your address if someone impersonated you while committing a crime.
This is called criminal identity theft.
Here are some examples:
- Someone might give the police your ID documents when they violate traffic regulations. This means you will have to pay fines.
- An identity thief might present your identity rather than theirs when questioned about a crime they committed.
- They may stay in hotels, rent cars, and write fake checks in your name. Once these checks are flagged, authorities may try to prosecute you.
- Criminals may also attach a crime to your record, making you face background checks from a potential employer.
Criminal identity theft may leave you with a criminal record that can be challenging or impossible to dispute.
A warrant for your arrest often indicates that the deed has already been done. There’s not much you can do except prove your innocence.
That’s why you must be proactive in security measures
How to Stop People From Using Your Identity
Below are ways to protect yourself from identity theft, especially when you suspect you might be a victim.
- Update your passwords and enable 2-factor Authentication.
- Place a fraud alert with your credit bureau.
- Freeze your credit. Do this for your children as well.
- Notify the FTC and file a police report if you suspect you’ve been an ID theft victim.
- Notify your bank and credit card company.
- Check your credit reports regularly and review banking statements. Use the federally-approved AnnualCreditReport.com.
- Don’t reveal sensitive personal information such as SSN, driver’s license, passport, birth certificate, etc. If you must share this information, ask how it will be used and who has access to it.
- Keep sensitive documents safe, and don’t carry them about.
- Use antivirus software like Norton, McAfee, and Kaspersky.
- Regulate the pictures and information you share on social media. Ensure you don’t post high-resolution images. You can learn more about the dangers of posting pictures on social media here.
- Use Authenticator apps such as Google, Microsoft, and Okta.
You can read the complete guide on how to prevent identity theft. I mentioned some actionable steps on what you should do in each case.
Identity theft is difficult to spot – and you may realize it too late.
However, it’s important to be vigilant and not overlook the signs. You can report identity theft easily, so look out for suspicious activity regarding your financial accounts.
If you have a busy life and can’t actively monitor your credit or bank accounts, consider signing up for an identity protection service, see the comparison, and choose which one is the best.
Depending on the one you choose, these services will notify you when your credit card has been used or if there are any illegal activities.
There are a few ID protection services, such as Aura identity theft protection, IdentityForce, and LifeLock by Norton. They only cost a few dollars monthly and can save you from disastrous financial and reputational damages.
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