Identity theft in America is rising steadily each year. With rapidly advancing technology and increasing public online presence, there are countless ways for an identity thief to access your information and use it against you.
With that being said, there are steps you can take to spot when identity theft is happening and ways to prevent your information from being taken or abused.
What is Identity Theft?
Identity theft is exactly what it sounds like – it’s when someone steals your personal information and impersonates you. Identity thieves commonly steal a person’s information in order to steal from them.
Identity thieves may try to drain your bank account, open new credit cards, or even use your health insurance information in order to get medical treatments. With technology becoming more and more integrated into everyday life, identity thieves have many different ways of stealing your personal information.
In order to avoid a potential financial pitfall, it’s crucial to know how to detect identity theft, how to respond, and ways to prevent your information from being stolen in the future.
7 Common Signs of Identity Theft
It may not be in your best interest to think that identity theft will never happen to you. Luckily, there are several ways to spot identity theft. Here are some examples of what to look for.
- You receive medical bills that are not from your doctor or not incurred by you.
- You notice withdrawals from your bank account that you can’t recall making.
- You detect unusual credit card charges, some for very low amounts. Sometimes identity thieves test the water before overloading the account with bogus charges.
- You get notices from the IRS that you know are not correct.
- A collection agency or other company calls about a debt that you know is not yours.
- You apply for a loan and the application is denied when you believe your credit to be in good condition.
- Your bank and credit card statements haven’t arrived on time or for several months.
If you have experienced any of these scenarios, you may have had your personal information stolen. It’s important to act quickly in these scenarios. Otherwise, you may end up losing a lot more in the long run if you ignore the red flags.
How Identity Theft Happens
So what allows a person to steal your identity? Technological advances and an increase in your online presence have made it easier than ever for criminals to access your personal data. Some of the ways your data is accessed are apparent, while others are much more covert.
Once a criminal has your name, Social Security number, and possibly even your home address, they can go on a rampage opening bank accounts and credit cards, filing for government benefits, and accessing your bank account to drain it.
There are many ways your data is accessed and stolen. It’s incredibly important to be aware of how your data can be accessed and simple ways to prevent someone from stealing that data.
Your Personal Identification is Stolen
Keep your Social Security card, birth certificate, and passport at home and out of sight. These are some of the most sensitive documents a person can have, so take that into consideration before traveling with sensitive documents in your wallet or purse.
Your Credit Cards are Stolen
If you have more than one credit card, it may be a good idea to keep them at home rather than all in one location on your person. When using your credit card, be aware of where it is at all times.
For example, the waiter in the local diner takes much longer than necessary to process your bill – he could be making an imprint of your credit card or sending your information to someone for illegal use.
Most credit card companies now have an electronic pay feature that allows you to use your smartphone and an app to pay for goods and services. This eliminates putting your physical card in anyone’s hands.
Information Found on Social Media is Used Against You
Your online presence is an easy target for criminals scouring the web for data. Facebook’s profile section asks for your birthday, where you live, your employment, phone number, and other personal data.
This pertinent data can be used to gain access to other online data and possibly lead to identity theft. Don’t provide your life history to Facebook and other social media sites. You are setting yourself up for identity theft.
For added protection and security, consider making your social media profiles private. This prevents strangers from obtaining information that they have no business knowing.
Your Data Can Be Leaked While Shopping Online
If you are like millions of other people around the world, you do most of your shopping online. Unfortunately, this is another way identity thieves and financial data breaches can negatively affect your life.
You should make sure you are shopping on trusted sites as indicated by the lock in the lower corner of the page. While this is more secure than doing nothing, the most secure way is to use a third-party app when paying.
This keeps your financial data out of the equation. You can go through your credit card company and use a virtual, one-time credit card number or use a service such as PayPal.
Your Mail is Stolen
Check your mail daily. When possible, you should go paperless for bank and credit card statements so these documents are not in your mailbox waiting for a thief. If you don’t go paperless, make sure you are checking your mail daily and know when your statements should arrive.
Mail thieves are looking for anything financial, from checks to bank statements. Take every step you can to prevent your mail from being stolen.
Your Card Information is Stolen at ATMs and Gas Pumps
In recent years, criminals have found ways to access your debit and credit card information at gas pumps and ATMs. Pay close attention to the pump or ATM before using your card. If you notice anything out of the ordinary, particularly near the card insertion area, don’t insert your card.
Thieves have devised ways to add a device to the machine that looks like it is part of the machine. This device, known as a skimmer, reads and records your card.
4 Steps You Can Take to Protect Your Identity
Now that you know how identity theft can happen, here are four security steps you can take to further protect your identity.
Step #1: Monitor your credit card and bank accounts.
Online banking and credit card apps make it easy for you to log in and check your balances anytime. Some people check daily and some never check. Make it a habit to check periodically. It’s easier to mitigate the damages of identity theft when it’s caught early.
Step #2: Add identity theft and credit monitoring services to your arsenal.
Whether you add these services to your credit cards or get them through a specialized company, they can be extremely important to preventing data theft.
Lifelock and IdentityIQ both provide subscription-based services to help ensure that your personal information is protected. These companies offer many features like credit alerts and credit locks that help keep your identity safe.
Step #3: Add a screen lock to your smartphone.
Most people have a wealth of data stored on their smartphones. If you lose it or it’s stolen, this screen lock will provide an additional safeguard for your personal information. Take advantage of the smartphone’s built-in security technology.
Step #4: Never give out personal information via email or over the phone.
Many identity thieves pose as the IRS, your bank, or some other entity that you would typically trust. Do not answer personal questions unless you know beyond a shadow of a doubt who is on the receiving end.
If you get a phone call from someone and are unsure if they are who they say they are, ask for the company name and hang up the phone. From there, you can call the company back at their number listed on Google or their official website.
If they do not have any reason why they would have been calling you, you now know that it was most likely a scammer! There will always be someone, somewhere finding new ways to steal identities.
What to Do if You Are a Victim of Identity Theft
You feel as though you are prepared and protected. You don’t carry all your identification with you, you use third-party payment options online and you monitor your accounts closely. Then, out of the blue, you get an unidentifiable bill or credit card charge.
Somehow, a thief slipped through the cracks and stole your personal information. It happens. Now, you have to get started repairing the damage. Here are some early steps you can take to prevent major losses from happening.
Notify Your Bank and/or Credit Card Lender
Immediately notify your bank and credit card companies. They can place a freeze on your accounts and issue you new account information. This may be inconvenient in the short term, but it’s a much better option to nip the problem at the bud.
Change Your Passwords
Another immediate step you can take to mitigate the damage is to reset your passwords. This may include the passwords for your bank, credit card, and email.
Change your online login information for your banks and credit card companies. Be sure to come up with a strong password.
File a Report With the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
File a report with the FTC. You can do this online or over the telephone at 1-877-438-4338. The site will help you with forms and letters that you will need during your recovery process.
Consider Subscribing to a Credit Monitoring Service
If you have not already done so, enroll in a credit monitoring service. If your information is ever compromised, a credit monitoring service will notify you as it is happening. That way you can act quickly and prevent major losses.
These steps do not need to be taken in any particular order. As long as you take some type of action and reach out to the right people, you’ll be in a better position regardless.
Once steps are made, the thief will not be successful in using your information for personal gain. However, if damage has already been done you will need to deal with it. This can be a slow process that requires your attention and patience.
Who to Contact if Your Personal Information Has Been Stolen
If you lose your purse or wallet or someone steals your identification, you need to take some immediate steps. The quicker you take action, the less likely you are to have a major problem and possibly may avoid identity theft completely. There are different agencies to contact, depending on what is stolen.
Here are some of the most common types of information stolen and what to do if you suspect identity theft.
Bank Account Information
If your bank account information has been compromised, contact your bank. If your debit card is stolen, have them stop the card and issue another one. Monitor your bank account(s) for suspicious activity. If the account number is compromised, you will need to freeze the account and ask for a new account number to be issued.
Your Social Security Number
If you know your Social Security number has been stolen, consider placing a security freeze on your credit reports and get a credit monitoring subscription. If the theft was part of a data breach, the company that was breached often provides free monitoring and credit freezing.
You will also need to watch for anything tax-related. You can call the IRS to report the stolen card and follow up on any letters from the IRS to let them know it’s not you if someone files a bogus return.
If your phone is stolen and it was not locked or if someone finds out your passwords, change all of your account passwords and login information. Make it difficult to access through guessing. Passwords should not be common information, such as your name or your pet’s name.
If you have a smartphone, there’s a good chance you can report it as stolen. If you have your device linked to another device such as a computer, you may be able to restore the phone to its factory settings remotely. This will wipe the phone of any personal data.
Protect all other sensitive documents and report missing or lost ones as soon as you realize it. If you don’t monitor your credit reports monthly, at the very least get your free annual reports and go over the information for accuracy.
Oftentimes documents and other personal information can be stolen and go unnoticed until something sketchy shows up on your credit report.
You have taken the first step in identity theft protection by becoming more educated on it. Use the information herein to prevent yourself from becoming a victim. The more you know about identity theft, the better protected you are.