11 Ways a Thief Can Steal Your Identity
Written by: Kristy Welsh
Last Updated: April 19, 2017
Though countless things make up the whole of your identity, thieves may only need a single piece of information to steal it away from you. It could be a social security number or a credit card number, but it could also be something far less-guarded that you share openly, and often, without a second thought. Like your birthdate. Your address. Your phone number.
What's worse is that identity thieves have so many means of collecting your personal data. They know them all. Do you?
#1 - Purse and Wallet Theft
It's a little old-school, but when it works, it works wonders. A thief who manages to get their hands on your purse or wallet gains access to your driver's license, credit cards, debit cards, checks, and possibly even your passport. With this wealth of resources, they can do just about anything.
- Never leave your purse or wallet in the car, even if you're just running into the store for a minute. In fact, never leave your purse or wallet unattended anywhere but in your own home. The only exception is in the homes of family and close friends (provided it's not a social gathering of people you do not know).
- Only carry in your purse or wallet things you absolutely need. Why carry all your credit cards when you only need one? Why carry your checkbook when you only write checks to pay bills once or twice a month? And though it can probably go without saying, here it is just in case, never carry your social security card or birth certificate.
#2 - Mail Theft
Think you get exited about checking your mail? Imagine the excitement thieves feel at the prospect of discovering in your mailbox boxes of checks or pre-approved credit card offers. Then there's all the information they can piece together from phone bills, bank statements, and tax documents.
- Go paperless. As much as possible, request from your utility companies, bank, credit card issuers, and the like that your bills and statements be sent to you via email.
- Check your mail as soon as possible, every single day, to limit potential accessibility.
- Take outgoing mail directly to the post office. Even a secured drop box in your apartment complex or the like can be broken into. And never, ever, no matter what, put outgoing mail into an unlocked mailbox. That red flag you put up to catch the postal person's attention does the same for identity thieves on the prowl.
#3 - Dumpster Diving
What you're good and done with may be just the beginning for identity thieves from bank statements, to credit card offers, to tax documents.
- Shred everything. Well, everything that has your name and other personally identifiable information on it, be it a mailing address, phone number, account number, social security number, etc.
- If in doubt, shred it anyway.
#4 - Copying Card Information at Checkout
Every time you hand your credit or debit card over to a stranger, you're handing them a key to your life. Granted, these days we're the ones doing the swiping much of the time, meaning our cards never leave our hands, but that's not always the case, particularly at restaurants where servers disappear with our cards for stretches of time plenty long for them to copy down our card info.
- Pay with cash at restaurants. This may take some getting used to, but as inconvenient as it may be to stop for cash before dinner, it pales in comparison to the worst-case alternative. If cash isn't an option (it's always an option), choose credit over debit. You can only be held responsible for $50 of fraudulent credit card charges, whereas for debit cards it's $500.
- For those times when you hand your card over to cashiers, be mindful of them turning their back to you and taking longer with the transaction than seems normal. Identity thieves have been known to use this opportunity to take a picture of cards with their smartphones.
- After getting your card back from a payment transaction, always double-check to be sure it's yours. Identity thieves have been known to swap it out with a fake one, and you're none-the-wiser until the next time you try using it.
#5 - Cell Phone Calls
Who's not guilty of eavesdropping on someone else's cell phone conversation? Often, it's hard not to, especially when they're talking in a cafe or while standing in line, well, just about anywhere. For most of us it's just an annoyance or a guilty pleasure. For identity thieves, it's an opportunity.
- Never conduct personal business over a cell phone in public. This includes calls to your bank, utility companies, or any person or organization with whom you may be asked to share personal information. You know what it's like trying to access an account over the phone -- it's one query after another, from your address and phone number, to PINs and security questions.
#6 - Skimming
At best, outdoor ATMs and payment kiosks at gas stations and parking lots are a convenience. At worst, they are a magnet for identity thieves who use "skimmers" — devices surreptitiously attached to the ATM or payment kiosk so as to steal information from your credit or debit card.
- Do not use outdoor ATMs. Either use an ATM inside your bank or make your transaction with a teller.
- Do not use your credit or debit card in an outdoor payment kiosk. Use cash instead. Of course, this isn't an option when leaving a parking structure (if you forgot to pay before getting into your car). In that case, your only payment option is a card. In this case, user credit over debit, as you can only be held responsible for $50 of fraudulent charges on a credit card, whereas it is $500 for debit.
#7 - RFID Readers
Thanks to the RFID smart chips now available in credit and debit cards (radio frequency identification chips) it is now possible to make payments via a contactless card reader that makes swiping unnecessary. Unfortunately, this new feature is especially attractive to identity thieves. Anyone can purchase an RFID reader, place it near your pocket or purse, and steal your credit card number, expiration date, and other info without a thief ever gaining physical access to your wallet.
- If you don't know already, find out if your credit or debit cards are embedded with smart chips. Simply call the number on the back of each card and ask.
- If one or more of your cards are embedded with smart chips, invest in RFID-protective card sleeves or wallets which will protect you from identity thieves using RFID readers.
#8 - Phishing
We're all pretty practiced at weeding out spammy, suspicious-looking email. But that's no deterrent for identity thieves who are still finding ways for their email "phishing" scams to trick us into believing theirs are the real deal (i.e., emails from people and organizations we can trust and share information with).
- Do not open (or click on links inside) spammy, suspicious-looking email, even if it says it's from someone you know or normally do business with.
- Do not respond to email with personal information. Legitimate businesses will never ask you to verify any personally identifiable information in this manner.
#9 - Spyware
It seems we're always being encouraged to download one new program after another. Unfortunately, some programs are not all that they seem, as you may end up downloading "spyware" that identity thieves use to track your online activity and, in turn, steal your personal information.
- Be careful what you download.
- Invest in trusted anti-spyware software, like Norton or McAfee.
#10 - Social Media Sites
The danger of over-sharing via social media is not limited to random thoughts, overzealous opinions, or sorted details of your life. Identity thieves are counting on you to over-share the seemingly boring details of your life too.
- Never post to a profile or update your full birthdate, address, or phone number.
#11 - Data Breaches
Retailers are at the mercy of identity thieves who manage to breach their point-of-sale security systems, taking your personal information with them.
- Pay with cash whenever possible (it is always possible).
- When you do pay with a card, choose credit over debit. Again, you can only be held responsible for up to $50 of a fraudulent credit card purchase, whereas it's up to $500 for debit.
Other Ways to Protect Yourself
- Don't sign blank credit card receipts.
- Change your online passwords frequently. Make them as strong as possible, using at least one capital letter, as well as non-alphanumeric characters. Avoid passwords that include your name (or the names of loved ones), birth dates, etc. And the more non-sensical the better, meaning you're best-served avoiding real words that can be found in the dictionary.
- Only make online purchases via credit or debit card on websites that are clearly secure (i.e. displaying the lock icon or "https" in the domain name.
- When making purchases with your card over the phone, only do so if you made the call.
- Remove your name from mailing lists.
- Check your checking and credit card activity daily via your online accounts.
- Check your credit reports at least once a year to be sure there are new accounts that you didn't open. Go to AnnualCreditReport.com to request your free copies from the three major credit reporting agencies, Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion.
Break it down to what's at the heart of every tip on this list: common sense. In every aspect of your life, make choices that limit how you treat, and with whom you share, personally identifiable information.