When it comes to identity fraud, a lot of people think about some of the more obvious examples, things like someone getting a hold of your bank account’s information and stealing your money. Essentially, stealing your wallet but digitally.
However, cases like that are relatively rare. Experienced identity thieves usually go for a more scattershot approach, using any kind of information they can get their hands on and eking the maximum amount of value they can.
Figuring out when this happens can be difficult, especially if you have a ton of accounts and cards, and maybe don’t pay attention to some.
Let’s go over some best practices to ensure you can catch identity fraud in a short timespan.
Have Identity Theft Protection
This is the simplest option, of course, but worth discussing.
Essentially, the entire point of having identity theft protection is to have a program which sifts through all of your information that is available digitally, and spits out alerts to you if it finds something that seems out of the ordinary.
This automates the process, taking the stress off of you to do so. It also provides you more options in the case that identity fraud events are found, so you can get your money back and close off that avenue of attack.
That said, this is not your only choice, simply the easiest one.
The easiest way to keep yourself safe from identity fraud without an identity theft protection service to do it for you, is to pay very close attention to, well, everything.
The big ones are going to be your important business and personal accounts. Let’s start with the obvious:
Paying very close attention to your bank account and credit card statements is an integral part of ensuring you can catch it quickly if you fall victim to identity fraud.
It’s very easy to set up alerts to your phone or email on your bank and credit cards that will send you a message every single time you make a purchase. This is the easiest way I’ve found to keep track of things.
Since you’re getting a ping every time money is withdrawn from your account for any reason, all you need to do is look, and think. Does the purchase look familiar? Do you remember making it?
More than identity theft, this can actually save you a lot of money in the long run when it comes to recurrent charges for services. Say you’re signed up for a video streaming service, and it costs you $15 a month.
When you first signed up for it, you used it regularly, but there hasn’t been anything new to watch so you just kind of forgot about it.
In the background that subscription still ticks down, trickling money out of your account every month. Multiply that by several other forgotten services, and you have a real problem!
This lack of vigilance when it comes to monitoring bank accounts is exactly what fraudsters use as well. You might notice if someone just withdraws $2000 from your account, absolutely.
But will you necessarily notice if the identity thief signs up for some streaming service or something in your name and just reaps the benefits? Maybe not. You might think you signed up and forgot, or maybe your spouse or child bought a subscription and forgot to inform you.
Little acts of identity theft like this are some of the most common, and the easiest to resolve so long as you’re paying attention to your bank statements and the like.
The other big thing to be wary of: dormant credit cards. Most people have one, these credit cards that you haven’t used in years, but you still have lying around just in case.
Since you don’t use it regularly, you might have gotten out of the habit of checking it, or even opening the credit statements you get every month.
Untapped, rarely used resources like this are a goldmine for identity thieves because they know they can get away with making purchases on a card like that for a while before anybody catches on.
Monitor Your Credit Report
One of the biggest indicators that something has gone horribly wrong, and might indicate identity theft, are sudden and unexplained dips in your credit score.
This is why getting regular updates on your credit score is important. This is another thing typically (but not always) handled by an identity theft protection service, and if you have one that offers credit monitoring for free: great!
But if your identity theft protection service either doesn’t offer in-depth credit monitoring or charges extra for it, or even if you don’t have identity theft protection at all, there are a ton of easy solutions.
Getting free credit reports on at least a quarterly basis is easy to achieve by signing up for numerous websites, such as Credit Karma.
|Important Tip! Make sure the website is reputable, otherwise you may be giving vital information away to identity thieves while trying to protect yourself. Always do your research before signing up for a service that asks for a ton of personal information, and especially your social security number.|
Any time you see your credit score dip, ask yourself why that might be. Look into it, and find concrete answers for the change.
Unexpected and severe changes in credit are usually the result of identity theft ruining your debt to credit ratio by making unauthorized and undetected purchases on your credit cards.
In this case, remember to call your credit card company and dispute these charges. They will cancel your credit card and usually refund the money. The same goes for any fraudulent withdrawals from your bank account.
Check Your Mail
With a lot of stuff being done by email or otherwise online these days, it can be easy to forget about the importance of snail mail. In the deluge of junk mail, there can often be clues as to what might be going on with your information.
Are you getting strange phone, internet, or other bills asking for payment? Are there strange letters from government offices asking you to confirm information?
These can be indicators of ongoing identity fraud, in many forms.
In the most benign (and, to me, strange) cases, someone may have just used your information to sign up for a service, but not had any of your payment information to put in, perhaps in the hopes that you’ll pay the bill they racked up without giving it a second look.
In some cases people may have spoofed your phone number, and so you’re receiving bills from a second location, as they weren’t able to change your billing address.
But it’s the government messages, and anything medical related that you should watch out most for.
Unemployment fraud and insurance fraud are surprisingly common, and can be hard to catch. Likewise, someone stealing your social identity number in order to file their taxes (such as in the case of someone who is not a citizen) or even steal your tax refund are things you need to keep an eye out for, and traditional mail is the best place you’re likely to see clues of this happening.
Pay Attention to your Phone Calls and Email
Are you receiving a high volume of solicitation calls? Emails from strangers asking for money, or advertising a service (e.g., web design) to you directly? A high number of cases of “mistaken identity”?
You may have been the victim of low level identity theft such as someone spoofing your phone number, or selling your email address to dark web information gathering sites.
While events like this are usually harmless, though exceedingly annoying, they are usually an indicator that something worse is going to happen soon. Information like your phone number and email can sometimes be parlayed into more devastating types of identity theft given enough time.
Be sure to change your email address’s password (and if you’ve been a bit naughty, the password of all other accounts that shared the same one), and be wary of those fraudulent calls.
Start looking for any strange charges on your phone bill, or calls from your number in locations that don’t seem familiar; as an example I found out my number had been spoofed a while back when someone in Tennessee (somewhere I haven’t been in over a decade) made several calls using my number, and even tried to swap my account to AT&T.
While you should always be vigilant, as mentioned, you should step up your game at this point and more closely monitor everything for at least a month.
Know Where Your Important Documents Are
Everybody has a number of important documents that are needed for a variety of important tasks. Some of these you carry with you, like your driver’s license. Some should be stored in a safe location, such as your social security card or birth certificate.
Keeping these documents in your home is usually a safe bet, as they’re fine in a filing cabinet or documents folder you keep somewhere decently secure.
However, things happen. If you’ve recently been the victim of a burglary, documents like that are something a thief might take that can be easily overlooked in the rush of taking note of all the more overt thefts of things like high-value electronics, cash, jewelry, and things of that nature.
Alternately, perhaps your spouse accidentally threw them out while doing spring cleaning, if they were part of a box of stuff that is otherwise junk. If you have a maid, or someone else who could have relatively unfettered access to your home while you’re away, disreputable ones could be on the lookout for documents as well, for the same reason a burglar might take them; they can easily be used to make some money, and might not be missed for a while.
Always do a regular check on the storage space where you keep your important personal information, and if you do notice them missing take steps to report it as quickly as possible.
If part of that documentation included important passwords, for example to your computer, email, or combination to something like a safe or lockbox, remember to change these passwords and codes as quickly as you’re able.
Identity fraud is scary business, but it can be easier to stay on top of than people think. While it takes a lot of work, keeping an eye on your personal information should quickly become second nature.
Always pay close attention to any mail you receive (digital or otherwise) and keep an even closer eye on your credit report and bank statements as often as possible.
Having access to an identity theft protection service of some sort is an excellent choice as well. These services automate all of the processes we’ve covered today and several more, helping to take the load off your shoulders.
Whatever you choose to do, keep in mind that while you should always be vigilant and pay attention to your information and how it’s used, there’s little reason to stress or give in to anxiety over it.
So long as you catch identity fraud soon after it happens, which you will if you stay alert, everything is fixable.
Many types of identity fraud are relatively minor, and solved by speaking with the customer support staff of whatever service has been fraudulently paid in your name, or with your bank or credit card company. In the worst case, contacting the Federal Trade Commission to report fraud is an option, and one that is recommended for extreme types of identity fraud like tax fraud committed in your name, or medical insurance fraud.
Keep a level head and at least one eye open, and you should never have to worry too much.
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