Have you ever been a victim of identity theft, or do you know someone who has?
Chances are, you can answer yes to at least one of those questions. Identity (ID) theft is rising at an alarming rate. According to research conducted by Javelin Strategy, an independent research firm, identity theft rose by 8% in 2017, affecting 16.7 million U.S. consumers, for a total loss of $16.8 billion.
ID theft is a crime that can destroy your credit and reputation and lead to financial ruin. It can also be emotionally devastating. According to a 2017 report by the Identity Theft Resource Center, victims of ID theft suffered panic attacks, stress, insomnia, fatigue, and an inability to concentrate. Additionally, 67% of respondents stated that they were concerned for their financial future after having their identities stolen, and 7% even considered suicide.
Everyone is at risk for ID theft; even your children can have their identities stolen. And ID theft can come from anywhere. Every day, fraudsters become more sophisticated and consumers become more exposed as a result of online shopping, online banking, and online surfing on mobile devices.
So, what can you do to protect yourself and your family? Let’s take a look.
What Is Identity Theft?
Identity theft happens when someone else uses your personal information, without your permission, to commit a crime or fraud. They might use your driver’s license number, your Social Security number, or your name and address. Using illicitly obtained information, thieves can:
- Steal money from your bank account
- File a tax refund
- Open up credit cards
- Take out monetary loans
- Open up utility accounts
- Get medical services using your health insurance
- Get a job
- Rack up enormous credit card debt
Once a thief has your ID, they can even pretend to be you if they’re arrested.
According to LifeLock, the three age groups that are targeted the most frequently are children, college-aged students, and the elderly.
Where you live can also increase your risk of identity theft. Analysts for WalletHub compared cases of identity theft in all 50 states and the District of Columbia using metrics such as average loss amount. They found that the top 10 worst states for identity theft, in order, are:
- Rhode Island
- District of Columbia
- New York
So, where are you least at risk? Iowa. If you don’t mind endless amber waves of grain, Iowa is a great place to live if you want to avoid having your identity stolen.
How Thieves Steal Your ID
So, how do thieves get your personal information? They have plenty of tricks up their sleeves, including targeting the following:
- Bank Databases. Health institutions and retailers are also frequent targets because they store consumer information.
- Credit Reporting Agencies. In 2017, The Washington Post reported on an Equifax data breach that put the personal information of 147.9 million consumers at risk. That’s almost half the country.
- Robbery and Burglary. Thieves might steal your wallet or purse or break into your home.
- Email Scams. Email scams are another popular technique thieves use to gain access to your personal information. Typically, these are emails that mimic those sent from your bank or other financial institution and ask for personal information such as your Social Security number or bank account number.
- Mail Theft. Criminals might steal your mail, especially credit card applications, bank statements, and health records.
- Online Shopping. According to Javelin’s 2017 report, online shopping presents the greatest risk for identity theft. It’s now 81% more prevalent than point-of-sale fraud — i.e., when an employee steals from their employer at the point of a transaction when cash changes hands between the business and the customer.
- Unsecured Connections. Thieves can hop on to an unsecured WiFi network and steal any passwords you use while on the network. Sophisticated hackers can also conduct a port scan and gain access to information in your computer or mobile device.
- Dumpster Diving. Thieves sift through garbage bins looking for personal information you’ve thrown away.
- Pretexting. Also called social engineering, this is when thieves run a scam to get you to divulge personal information in person or over the phone. It might be with a fake job opening, sharing a “financial opportunity,” or even a door-to-door scam. Often, thieves have done some research and have just enough personal information on you to build a sense of trust, which they use to get you to share more sensitive information.
- School Records. Thieves might break into a school and access you or your children’s information through school computers or paper records. Chances are the school has immunization records, or even Social Security numbers, on file somewhere.
- Car Dealerships. Thieves can hack a car dealership’s database or even break into their offices. Typically, dealers attach your last credit report to your car loan application, or they have this information on file electronically.
- Previous Employers. You’re also at risk from all of your previous employers, who have your Social Security number, past addresses, and financial information, such as retirement or 401k accounts.
The above is only a short list of the possible scams and schemes thieves can use to steal your identity. You can see a more comprehensive list at the Center for Identity Management and Information Protection.
Keep in mind that an identity thief doesn’t have to be a full-time hacker or someone with a long criminal record. They can be an employee of a hospital or passport office or a clerk at the county records office or city hall. They might steal information and resell it to other criminals, or they might simply decide to take advantage of a file left open on a desk. Wherever your information is stored, it’s at risk.
Signs That Your ID Has Been Stolen
So, how do you tell if someone has stolen your identity? Look for some of these signs:
- There have been withdrawals from your bank account that you can’t explain.
- You’ve stopped receiving some bills, such as credit card or utility bills, in the mail.
- You’re receiving bills for medical services you never used or needed.
- You’re turned down for medical insurance due to medical conditions you don’t have.
- Your insurance company turns down your claims because you’ve reached your benefits limit, even though you’ve hardly used any services this year.
- Debt collectors are calling your house for debts you didn’t accrue.
- You see unauthorized or unfamiliar charges on your credit card statements.
- The IRS contacts you because more than one tax return was filed under your name.
- Retailers refuse to accept your checks.
- A company you do business with notifies you that your personal information is at risk due to a data breach.
- You’re rejected for a credit card or loan due to bad credit, even though you know your credit is good.
- You get an authentication alert you didn’t request. An authentication alert occurs when a company or service — typically a bank or other financial institution — sends you a code or personal identification number (PIN) in order to further verify your identity.
- You see small unauthorized charges on your account. Hackers will often run small “test charges” on your credit card to see if they go through and get noticed. When everything seems fine, they go full tilt.
What to Do If Your ID Is Stolen
If you suspect someone has stolen your identity, it’s essential that you act immediately to put a stop to it. Thieves work as fast as possible to rack up charges before the victim discovers what has happened, so the sooner you act, the less damage you’ll incur.
1. Contact Your Bank & Other Financial Institutions
Typically, fraudulent activity is first discovered in connection with a bank account or credit card. If you suspect someone else has gained access to these accounts, call each institution and alert them to the activity. Together, you can decide whether to freeze the account or close it entirely.
You also need to go through past statements and look for suspicious charges; this can help you determine when the thief initially accessed your information.
2. Contact a Credit Reporting Agency
Your next step is to contact one of the three credit reporting agencies: Experian, Equifax, or TransUnion. Ask them to put a free fraud alert on your credit report. A fraud alert is like a red flag for creditors; it lets other companies know that you’re a victim of identity theft and that they should take extra steps to investigate anyone who’s trying to obtain credit using your information. A fraud alert will stay in place for 90 days.
Once one agency puts a fraud alert on your account, that agency is legally obligated to contact the other two agencies and ask them to do the same.
You’ll also want to contact each agency for a copy of your credit report. The Fair Credit Reporting Act guarantees you a free credit report if you’re a victim of identity theft; this report is in addition to the free credit report everyone is entitled to annually from AnnualCreditReport.com.
3. Contact the Federal Trade Commission
Next, file a report with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) at IdentityTheft.gov. The FTC will develop a recovery plan tailored to your unique situation and even provide pre-written letters and forms you can use to file a police report or dispute charges with other companies or institutions.
4. Call the Police
While chances are high that your local police won’t open an investigation, you will need a police report for other agencies to investigate.
Keep in mind that some officials will require that you file a report in the county where the crime occurred, if you know where that is. To do this, you might have to call a police department somewhere else in the country and file a report over the phone.
How to Protect Yourself from Identity Theft
The Equifax data breach of 2017 was just one breach; the Identity Theft Resource Center reports that there were 1,579 commercial data breaches in 2017. Many people have had their personal information compromised on some level. Fortunately, there are several things you can do to protect your information and reduce your risk of identity theft.
1. Check Your Credit Report Annually
When was the last time you looked over your credit report to make sure everything was legit? If you’re like most people, it was probably years ago when you applied for a mortgage or car loan. According to AARP, 52% of Americans don’t check their credit report annually. But regularly monitoring your credit report is a good way to spot fraudulent activity.
Only one website is approved by the Federal Government to provide your free annual credit report: AnnualCreditReport.com. Going through this website means you’ll receive a credit report from each of the three credit reporting agencies. By law, you’re entitled to one free credit report each year.
2. Freeze Your Credit Reports
You can also choose to freeze your credit reports. To do this, you’ll have to contact each credit reporting agency individually and request an account freeze. This is an excellent deterrent against identity theft because no one can open a credit card or obtain a loan under your name when your credit reports are locked.
However, it’s not foolproof. There are still some companies and agencies that will be able to view your credit report. These include:
- Any financial institution you’re already doing business with
- Federal, state, and local government agencies
- Companies wishing to send pre-approved credit card offers
- Collection agencies
- Insurance agencies
- Companies reviewing your application for employment
All three credit reporting bureaus now provide a security freeze for free. Each link below will take you directly to that company’s credit freeze sign-up page.
Keep in mind that TransUnion and Experian also have monthly ID protection services that cost from $5 to $20 per month. These credit monitoring services are not the same as a security freeze, which is free.
Once your credit reports are frozen, you can unfreeze them with a password or PIN if you want to apply for a loan or credit card. Once your application is completed and processed, you can easily freeze your reports again.
3. Change Your Passwords Frequently
According to Security magazine, an average business professional keeps track of 191 passwords. You have passwords for work, for personal use, for your family… once you start to tally them up, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by their sheer number. And the thought of changing one of them — much less all of them —can make you feel frustrated before you even begin.
However, you should be changing your passwords several times a year, especially for any accounts linked to your bank or credit cards. According to data protection firm Digital Guardian, 44% of Americans change their passwords once a year or less. In addition, 61% of respondents admitted to using the same passwords across multiple websites. In terms of security, that’s a big no-no.
A great way to keep your personal information secure is to be sure to change your passwords every three months. Download a free app like KeePass for your desktop; it’s also available for Android and iOS. KeePass is an open-source password manager that’s highly encrypted and keeps track of your passwords and the websites associated with each one. All you have to remember is one password for KeePass to access all of your other passwords.
4. Consider an Identity Theft Monitoring Service
Many companies are now in the “identity security” business. For a monthly or yearly fee, these companies will monitor your credit reports, Social Security number, and other personal information and alert you if any new accounts are opened under your name or if they spot suspicious activity.
These services can help you catch identity theft early on, and they provide invaluable support to guide you through the process of recovery if it happens. Some companies even provide ID theft insurance, which reimburses you for some expenses incurred due to theft. However, these services can be pricey, especially considering you can take most protective steps on your own for free. That said, if you’d rather pay a monthly fee to have these companies do the work for you, they’re worth considering.
Below is a rundown of two popular ID protection services.
AAA Identity Theft Protection
The cost of AAA’s Identity Theft Protection program varies depending on which tier you choose, and compared to other companies, it’s fairly affordable.
- The Basic package is free for AAA Premier members, but monitoring is limited to Experian only. You get also get Fraud Resolution support 24/7.
- The Deluxe package is $10.95 per month and offers expanded services, including monitoring of all three credit reporting agencies and Social Security number monitoring, as well as dark web surveillance, new account alerts, change of address alerts, and bank account and credit card takeover alerts. You can also get child identity monitoring for an extra $3.95 per month. You even get $1 million in identity theft insurance.
- The Premier package is $15.95 per month and includes additional services, such as social media monitoring, payday loan monitoring (these loans often go undetected because they don’t require a credit check), credit limit checks (to watch for credit limit raises), and dormant credit card monitoring. With Premier, child ID monitoring is free.
LifeLock has been around since 2005 and is considered by many to be an industry leader in ID protection. The company lost consumer trust in 2015 when the FTC investigated it for misleading consumers with false advertising and failing to protect consumer data, and it ended up paying a $100 million to settle allegations. However, LifeLock is still in business and is still considered one of the most well-known monitoring services.
LifeLock has three levels of ID protection:
- Standard protection is $8.99 per month and includes Social Security and credit alerts, lost wallet protection, address change verification, reduced pre-approved credit card offers, black market website surveillance, 24/7 support, and $1 million in insurance with $25,000 allocated for stolen funds reimbursement.
- Advantage protection is $17.99 per month and includes all of the services above, as well as fictitious identity monitoring, court records scanning, data breach notifications, one credit bureau credit report, credit card alerts, checking and saving account alerts, and insurance with $100,000 allocated for stolen funds reimbursement.
- Ultimate Plus protection is $26.99 per month and includes all of the services above, as well as annual credit reports and scores from all three credit bureaus, investment account activity alerts, bank account takeover alerts, credit inquiry activity monitoring, file sharing network searches, sex offender registry reports, and monthly credit score tracking.
As you can see, LifeLock is not cheap, but you can often find coupon codes for 10% off if you check sites like RetailMeNot.
5. Make Sure Children & Seniors Are Safe
Children and seniors are frequent targets for identity theft.
Seniors are often prone to ID theft through email and phishing scams. Since their generation didn’t grow up with this technology, they might have a hard time telling the difference between a legitimate email and a phishing scam.
Thankfully, knowledge is power. Talk to the seniors in your life and make sure they know the signs of a typical email scam. TechRepublic suggests looking for the following indications:
- The email contains poor spelling and grammar.
- The email asks for personal information.
- The email notifies you of winnings for a contest you didn’t enter.
- The sender asks you to send money to cover “expenses.”
- The email threatens you with negative consequences if you don’t send your personal information.
- The email seems to be from a government agency. Typically, government agencies don’t use email as an initial point of contact.
- The email or offer seems too good to be true.
Children are at high risk for ID theft because they have a clean slate. They have a Social Security number, but because they don’t have credit cards and bank accounts, it can be years before parents discover that their child’s identity has been stolen. There are plenty of steps you can take to protect your child’s identity; freezing their credit reports is one of the easiest ways to ensure their identity stays safe.
6. Stay On Top of Scams
Another way to stay safe is to periodically read up on the current scams and ruses thieves are using to gain access to personal information. The FTC publishes Scam Alerts several times per month.
7. Opt Out of Pre-Approval
As mentioned, one way thieves can gain access to your finances is by stealing credit card offers, especially pre-approved credit card offers, using them to open up a new card in your name and then stealing the card out of your mailbox when it arrives.
You can prevent this by opting out of these offers. Visit OptOutPrescreen, the official Consumer Credit Reporting Industry website, to opt out of credit card and insurance offers. The service is free, and once you opt out, you will be removed from mailing lists for five years.
Identity theft is one of those things we think will never happen to us. However, researching and writing this article was a huge wake-up call for me. After reading the horror stories from victims who’ve had their lives destroyed by ID theft, I froze all my credit reports and did the same for my children.
It’s sobering to think about how quickly a thief can steal your money and ruin your reputation; today, it just takes a few keystrokes. However, taking a few preventive measures like freezing your credit reports and periodically changing your passwords can go a long way toward keeping your assets, and your reputation, safe.
Have you ever had your identity stolen? What was your experience like?