What is Identity Theft?
Identity theft is the fraudulent practice of using someone else’s name and personal information to steal, obtain loans, credit, etc.
It sounds like something straight out of a crime blockbuster movie until it happens to you.
Let me tell you a story about how my life changed a decade ago.
In late June 2013, a store refused my check after running it through a verification service.
Like everyone would, I called my bank immediately. What I heard was shocking.
TWELVE checks had been written on my account, and a total of $5,700 had been withdrawn.
I admit. I am an impulsive spender.
BUT NOT LIKE THAT.
The fake checks had my account number plus the names of two more people with California addresses.
The moment of realization was one of the worst feelings ever.
I have a doppelganger!
Of course, there’s no such thing. But someone in California had become me and taken a lot of money using my personal information.
Luckily, they were caught by the Police in San Diego. I say ‘luckily’ because only 1 in 700 identity theft suspects are caught. This makes it absolutely critical to be proactive and prevent identity theft before it happens.
I closed the account, and fortunately, the bank returned my $5,700.
How Did It Happen?
After an investigation, I discovered my personal information was stolen from my employer’s database.
It all made sense.
There had been a data breach a few months before, and I did nothing about it. I didn’t change my credentials, and everything stayed the same. In my mind, the company would take care of it.
Obviously, they didn’t.
However, I learned an important lesson about identity theft that day. It is real and could happen to just about anyone. And it might be too late before you realize it.
A data breach is only one of the numerous ways an identity theft case can happen.
For example, if you’re like me and enjoy using public Wi-Fi, then you could be at risk. Fraudsters also buy sensitive information from a company employee.
Don’t be deceived; old-school methods like dumpster diving and eavesdropping still exist.
I’ll touch base on these later. But safety comes first. How do you protect yourself from identity theft?
✎ Related: How to Protect Your Bank Account From Hackers? ➔
12 Security Measures To Prevent Identity Theft
There are many identity theft protection measures to take before it happens.
In my case, the identity thief used my identity to scam ME. Unfortunately, your identity could also be used to scam others.
For example, my cousin Jack’s identity was used to defraud a college of $7,500 just two months after my experience. This isn’t a situation you want to be in when you’re a law enforcement officer.
Proving your innocence is almost impossible in identity theft cases.
This is especially important when you consider how slim the chances are that the thief would be caught.
To avoid such uncomfortable situations, here are security measures to prevent identity theft:
1. Consider Freezing Your Credit
No one can see or request your credit report when you freeze your credit file. This means nobody can open an account, get a new credit card, or apply for a loan while it is frozen – including you.
Since my identity theft incident, I have kept my credit card frozen whenever not in use.
The best part is this is a free service, so it won’t impact my credit score. I got a passcode from a credit bureau to use when I want to temporarily lift or stop the credit freeze.
To freeze your credit, you must contact Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.
You should also consider freezing your children’s credit files.
I got this one from Jack. And I’ve done it for my kids ever since.
It turned out his personal information was stolen from his dad’s employer database. As a child, his details were listed in the company’s human resource files for insurance coverage purposes.
This is a big problem in the United States.
Child identity fraud costs US families about $1 billion annually. By estimates, it can cost the average family over $1,000.
There are many disturbing stories of parents discovering their child’s creditworthiness had been damaged at a crucial time when they needed a clean record, such as when applying for a student loan.
2. Collect Mail Daily
Not all identity theft is high-tech.
An identity thief can still remove physical mail from your home’s mailbox. This could contain sensitive information like credit card statements, tax forms, utility bills, and pre-approved credit card offers.
I now take my physical mail from my mailbox. This allows me to keep track of expected mails that don’t arrive. I can also put my mail on hold whenever I’m out of town.
Learn the ways to avoid mail identity theft here.
3. Review Bank Statements and Credit Transactions Regularly
I bet you’ve heard different credit card fraud stories.
In fact, it’s the most common type of identity theft. So, one of the best ways to prevent identity theft is to review bank statements and credit card transactions regularly.
Doing this helped me keep track of all my transactions. This way, it’s easier to identify transactions I didn’t initiate.
It’s possible that a thief is making these small amounts to see if you’ll notice.
The thief will probably try to make more expensive purchases if neither you nor your financial institutions flag them.
Pro Tip: Know when you typically receive statements and check to see if any are late.
4. Shred Any Documents Containing Personal Info Before Disposing
Yep, sounds old-school, but dumpster diving is still a thing.
Not everyone digging through your trash is looking for old furniture they can still use. Some might be snooping around to steal your sensitive information.
Trust me; you can never be too careful.
As a rule of thumb, I keep my last three bank statements in a safe and replace them with new ones every month.
I shred any other documents containing personally identifiable information (PII) like IRS correspondence, credit card info, and bank statements.
5. If a Service You Use Experienced a Data Breach, Find Out if Your Records Were Affected
This one is kinda personal, as you would have read above.
If a service or vendor you use experienced a data breach, CHANGE YOUR PASSWORDS. I can’t stress this enough.
Companies are usually required to notify their users or the public once there’s been a data breach.
Even if a data breach hasn’t happened, it’s best to change your passwords periodically.
In the next point, I’ll discuss the importance of password management in identity theft prevention.
6. I Now Use Different Passwords for Different Accounts
Look, I know it’s easier to use just one password on all your accounts. But that’s dangerous.
Make them at least 15 characters because they’re more difficult for computer program hackers to hack.
Ensure your password combines alphabets, numbers, and special characters. Use symbols like “@.” “#,” “$,” and “^.”
As tempting as it might be, don’t use birthdays, names, or any other personally identifiable info.
The FTC advises choosing security questions that only you can answer rather than info that could be found online, such as your ZIP code, birthplace, or mother’s maiden name. Avoid responding with cliches like “chocolate” when asked what your favorite dessert is.
The idea is to make your password difficult to guess. Don’t underestimate cyber-criminals. It takes a certain level of skill and intelligence to be a fraudster.
7. Protect Social Security Number
Never reveal your social security number to someone you don’t know, especially in emails, phone calls, or text messages.
Even if you know this person, ask why they need it. Or even if they need it at all.
Should a dishonest person get your SSN, they can use it to get other PII about you. If you have good credit, identity thieves can use your SSN to apply for more credit using your name.
Of course, they will not pay the bills. And this harms your credit score.
So, protect your social security number as best as you can.
8. Annual Credit Report Review
Believe it or not, I’ve done this every year since the 2013 incident. You should do the same.
Why not? Requesting your credit reports from Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion is free.
You can easily access your credit reports online, and doing so won’t lower your credit score. The bureaus also offer features, like alerts that let you know when something important changes, to help you keep an eye on your credit.
I’ll let you in on a secret.
I pull reports from the bureaus at different times during the year. This means I am always monitoring activity.
You can borrow a leaf from my book of tricks!
9. Install Reliable Anti-virus Software
We’re back to online identity theft prevention skills.
Using good anti-virus software can prevent hackers from accessing data on your mobile devices or computer.
It can also protect your devices from malware attacks like spyware, viruses, and others.
So if you notice that your computer is slowing down, doesn’t shut down, shows popups or web tabs you didn’t open, and drains its battery quickly, you might be a victim of a malware attack.
The idea is this: cyber-criminals can hack outdated software more easily. This makes a reliable and updated anti-virus an absolute must.
There are a few reliable anti-virus software in the market.
For example, McAfee: Total Protection, Norton, Bitdefender, and Kaspersky are great options for you.
10. I Use Multi-Factor Authentication on All My Devices
With 2-factor authentication, a potential identity thief will have to call or email me to give them a passcode.
Good luck with that!
You should use multi-factor authentication, too. It adds an extra layer of security, combining a passcode, a device, or a fingerprint.
This means that even if my password is stolen, MFA prevents hackers from accessing my account without my smartphone or fingerprint.
For example, 2FA happens when you sign into an account with your password. Then, you get a text message with a passcode you must enter to enter the account.
It’s unlikely that an identity thief halfway across the world or in another state has access to these variables.
I use Google Authenticator, but Authy and Microsoft Authenticator are also reliable.
11. If You’re Planning to Donate Your Device, Make Sure You Factory Reset and Wipe it Clean
Stolen credentials contribute to 82% of data breaches, according to the Verizon Data Breach Investigation Report.
Have you ever wondered where deleted files go?
Well, not all of them are deleted completely. Pieces remain, and identity thieves can assemble them with a data recovery program until new data overwrites them.
To stop this from happening, factory reset your device before donating or giving it out. You never know how far it will go.
After transferring data from the old device into the new one, wipe it clean.
So, before donating your gadgets to Goodwill, make sure to remove all your sensitive information.
12. Don’t Opt into Pre-screened CC Offers
Pre-screened offers to open new accounts are commonly sent by credit card companies. Thieves may intercept these mailed or electronic offers and open accounts in your name.
Don’t just discard these offers. Shred them.
Your credit report won’t reflect the pre-screening that companies use to give these offers. So, you might not know the offer has been hijacked.
The best way to protect yourself from identity fraud is to opt out of the pre-screened offers for five years. Or, if you’re like me, opt out permanently.
You can visit the official credit reporting industry website optoutprescreen.com to do this.
Signs that You May Be a Victim of ID Theft & Steps to Take
Identity thieves have become more sophisticated in their methods.
Do you suspect that you may be a victim of identity theft? Here are signs to look out for and steps you must take immediately.
1. Email Confirmations for Purchases You Didn’t Make
Keep an eye on your email. If you get confirmations for purchases you know nothing about, it’s time to report identity theft.
You may also get emails asking for payment for an account you didn’t create.
2. Bills from companies you have no idea of
If you start getting bills from companies you have no dealings with, you may be a victim of ID theft.
This could be medical bills from hospitals you didn’t visit or unexplained charges in financial statements.
Don’t ignore these charges because they don’t seem familiar. Report identity theft immediately.
3. When credit cards you didn’t apply for arrive in the post
If you got an unexpected credit card in the mail, get in touch with the card’s issuer as soon as possible.
The same goes for any statements that come in for unidentified accounts.
4. Debt collection companies contacting you about bills you know nothing of
I’ve had a few friends mention calls for unknown debt and other collection notices.
Don’t assume the message is an error. Find out what debt this is.
And if you’re sure it’s an error, contact the collection agency requesting proof of the creditor and debt within 30 days.
5. Credit approval or denial emails for accounts you don’t recognize
You might get emails confirming approval or denial for accounts you know nothing about.
It might be tempting to overlook them, especially when you’ve got more important business.
DO NOT IGNORE.
6. When you are refused a loan or credit card despite a healthy credit score
If you’re sure you have a healthy credit score or haven’t reached your credit limit, ask why you’ve been denied.
It’s possible that an identity thief is racking up debt in your name and damaging your credit with unpaid bills.
7. No Statements in a Long Time
This is why you should check your emails regularly for account statements. An identity thief might have redirected your email or changed the account’s mailing address.
I’ve heard cases of people receiving a notice from the post office that their mail is being forwarded to another address – one they know nothing of because they didn’t request a change of address.
So, if you notice you haven’t received important emails from your financial institutions, it’s time to sit up.
Other tell-tale signs of an identity theft incident include errors on your tax return or even a warrant for your arrest.
Although the latter is extreme, my cousin got a warrant for his arrest. So, I know for sure it can happen.
What To Do If You’re A Victim?
An American becomes a victim of identity theft every 22 seconds. If you are sure someone has stolen your identity, here’s what you should do:
1. Stop Ongoing Damage
You need to do some damage control.
Close all bank, utility, credit, and service accounts fraudulently opened in your name or compromised.
I understand this is one of the most frenzied moments ever.
So, here’s what you should do to stay organized:
Make a list of all the credit cards, bank accounts, service providers, and utilities and their contact details.
Contact each organization on this list, explaining that you are a victim of identity theft and requesting that the account be closed.
Most companies will close the compromised account and give you a new account number without charging you anything.
Then, request a security freeze or fraud alert on your credit report to prevent new accounts from being opened in your name.
2. Report Identity Theft
When contesting fraudulent charges, most creditors ask for a police report.
As a result, you need to file a police report about the incident with your local police or sheriff’s office.
You can complain to local law enforcement even if you are unsure who used your information or whether it was used in another state.
Don’t forget to get a copy of the police report, including the case number.
3. Fill Out ID Theft Affidavits
You must contact the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to report identity theft.
The FTC has an ID Theft Affidavit that helps victims quickly dispute new unauthorized accounts. This is a great substitute for a police report, and some creditors also accept it.
You can download the FTC ID Theft Affidavit online through this link.
4. Prevent Future ID Theft Abuse
The next step is to prevent any other future ID theft incidents.
We’ve discussed many of the steps I currently use. I haven’t experienced any identity theft issues for the last ten years.
You might also want to contact agencies like the IRS, Postal Inspection Service, Passport Agency, Social Security Administration, and your local Driver’s License Office.
An identity thief could use your personal information to make false applications for a driver’s license, bankruptcy, Social Security benefits, or even a passport.
Contacting these organizations will help you avoid such cases.
✎ Related: Driver’s License Identity Theft ➔
5. Monitor Your Credit Report
As mentioned already, monitor your credit report and other financial statements periodically.
All three credit bureaus are required to send you a free copy of your credit report yearly.
As I said, pull reports from each bureau at different times during the year so you’re always in the know.
6. Declare You Are a Victim
While you try to prove your innocence, you may need a court order declaring you’re a victim of identity theft.
Download and complete the application to request a declaration of a victim of identity theft.
Set a hearing date by filing the application with your district court.
Show up in court on the scheduled date with evidence demonstrating you are a victim of identity theft.
Conclusion: Taking Proactive Measures
I have been a victim of identity theft, and it’s not a good feeling.
On the one hand, you’re trying to prove your innocence and save your reputation. On the other hand, you need to get your money back.
Almost one-third of Americans have suffered identity theft. These steps above will help you prevent identity theft and protect yourself online.
If you have a busy schedule, there are a few reliable identity theft protection services that will help you out. The best one among these services is one that’s within your budget and covers the aspects you care about.
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