Falling victim to identity theft is not fun. In fact, it’s easily one of the top ten experiences you want to avoid at all costs. Having someone impersonate you can be so frustrating that, by the time it is resolved, you end up wanting to move far away and live in the cabin in the woods.
To make matters worse, there are multiple types of identity theft to look out for. On the plus side, there’s also plenty you can do to prevent it. We’ll discuss how to protect yourself from identity theft in detail, as well as what to do if it happens to you.
What Is Identity Theft?
Identity theft is the criminal abuse of other people’s private information, such as their Social Security number, primarily for financial gain. If you think it won’t ever happen to you, identity theft stats will send chills down your spine.
Typically, there are seven common types of identity theft. Let’s familiarize ourselves with each of them, so you can spot them quickly if they happen. After all, if you recognize the early signs of identity theft, you can act to prevent bigger problems in the future. Don’t worry – we’ll cover these signs, too.
1. Account Takeover Fraud (ATO)
This is the most common type of identity theft. It can happen if any of your mobile devices or computers get stolen, after data breaches, or as the result of a successful phishing attempt.
Once the thief gains access to your accounts, they change your passwords, so you no longer have access to them. From there, they can use them how they see fit, usually for a bunch of transactions you would never authorize.
How to recognize the account takeover fraud and protect yourself from ID theft, you ask? Ensure your passwords are top-notch and change them often. You can always rely on a trustworthy password manager to do that for you, as well.
Be on the lookout for suspicious activity, too: For example, if you cannot log in to your bank account and you’re sure your password is correct, this could be the first sign someone else gained access to it.
2. Credit Identity Theft
We cannot stress this enough: Protect your Social Security number. Once thieves get a hold of it, they can apply for new lines of credit, or mess with your existing ones, overcharging and maxing them out, only to disappear into thin air afterward.
You’re probably asking yourself: “How to check if someone is using my identity?” We suggest taking advantage of free credit score reports from your bureau and investigating any unexpected changes to your score.
Getting rejected for a loan or ending up with a high APR for no apparent reason should prompt you to investigate, too. If there’s something suspicious on your credit reports and you don’t look into it, don’t be surprised if you receive debt collection notices. Additionally, if you suddenly stop receiving mail, it could be a significant red flag, as fraudsters often file for a change of address to prevent you from noticing the theft.
3. Child Identity Theft
You’re not the only one whose identity can be stolen – your child needs protection against ID theft, too. In this unfortunately common type of identity theft, thieves will use your child’s Social Security number to apply for loans and credit cards. This is one of the hardest thefts to recognize, and the fraud is usually discovered much later, when your child applies for college loans, for example.
Keep an eye out for credit card offers in your child’s name in your mailbox, or emails and phone calls with the same purpose. Lenders typically don’t have the means to match Social Security numbers with names, so it is easy for scammers to abuse your child’s Social Security number this way.
The best protection from identity theft for your child would be to open a credit file at a bureau and freeze it. Better safe than sorry.
4. Synthetic Identity Theft
This is a variation of the thefts explained above, where pieces of personal information are combined to create fake identities. One or more fragments of your details could be used in this case, so it’s essential to keep an eye out for any irregularities on all fronts.
5. Medical Identity Theft
This is the most dangerous one of the bunch and needs to be handled as quickly as possible. Medical identity theft happens when someone uses your medical insurance information to access medical help they otherwise couldn’t afford.
Pay special attention to the first signs of identity theft here because not only will this infringe on your insurance, but it might also lead to medical records getting mixed up. Considering how heavily doctors rely on those when making a diagnosis, you could end up in great danger.
Keep an eye on your medical benefits to discover the theft. If you don’t recognize or agree with something, inform both the insurance company and your doctor immediately.
6. Taxpayer Identity Theft
Even though it’s not nearly as dangerous as the previous crime, this one could cost you a lot of money. Scammers could file a tax return using your Social Security number and steal your tax refund or tax credit.
If you want to know how to protect yourself from identity theft in this situation, the safest route is to file your tax return early and beat fraudsters to the punch. Some states also offer six-digit identity protection PINs, so apply for one if they’re present in your state.
7. Criminal Identity Theft
All identity theft is a crime, but criminal identity theft means criminal suspects gave your information instead of theirs during an investigation.
Police could file your information in a non-flattering manner, and you might even end up with a criminal record. As a result, you could be denied a job after a background check or even get detained by the police. The best way to prevent this is to do a background check on yourself now and then.
What Can You Do To Protect Yourself From Identity Theft?
Unfortunately, there is no straightforward, “set it and forget it” way to protect yourself from having your ID stolen. There are various techniques scammers already use to get your information, and they are continually finding new ones, so it’s nearly impossible to be completely safe from identity theft.
However, adding some precautionary steps to your everyday routine is always a good idea. Being super careful when using an ATM or a public Wi-Fi network is a good start, but here are several additional tips to protect your identity:
1. You can use a password manager to keep your accounts safe.
With one of these installed, you can regularly update your passwords and make them as foolproof as possible without having to remember them.
2. Avoid leaving your personal information on untrustworthy websites or giving it over the phone to strangers.
Check who you’re talking to before you offer your Social Security number, and store your cards in a safe place.
3. The proper handling of sensitive papers is another great way to prevent identity theft.
Putting a lock on your mailbox if you can is a simple way to stop thieves from getting to your sensitive information. Your trash is another common source of personal details, so shredding your documents before disposing of them is an excellent step toward real privacy.
4. Take your time to read reports of any kind.
Don’t dismiss expenses or information you’re unfamiliar with – investigate such occurrences, even if they’re just about $5 on your bank statement. Occasionally, scammers will “test” a card before using it, and even small but inexplicable transactions can indicate identity theft.
What Steps Should You Take To Report the Theft and Re-Establish Your Identity?
If you suspect you have fallen victim to identity theft, the first step is to report it to the Federal Trade Commission and the police. Informing affected creditors or banks should be your next move, and freezing your accounts is also recommended. Usually, ID theft cases are resolved within a day or two if you act on time.
How do you avoid being a victim of identity theft?
The best way to avoid this is to be proactive and have a couple of security measures set in place. There is no definitive guide on how to protect yourself from identity theft, but staying conscious of your sensitive information is generally good practice. Pay attention to your passwords and documents, and always investigate any irregularities you find in your reports.
What should you do if you are a victim of identity theft?
As mentioned above, report the theft to the Federal Trade Commission and then follow their guidelines to fix any fallout.
How do I check to see if someone is using my Social Security number?
You can use some of the free credit monitoring or identity theft protection products available online.