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What Is Identity Theft and Are You At Risk?
Identity theft is a crime in which someone accesses information to commit fraud, typically by getting false credentials, opening new accounts in someone else's name or using someone else's existing accounts. Identity theft is a serious crime in the United States. Nearly 15 billion dollars were stolen from identity theft victims in 2017. Based on an online survey of 540 U.S. adults who experienced ID theft in 2017, conducted for Symantec by The Harris Poll, January 2018. You can take steps to help avoid having your identity stolen. First, you'll need to know how identity theft occurs and how to spot it.
How identity theft happens
There are a lot of ways identity theft can happen to you. Hackers may get your information from a data security breach. Or, you may unknowingly provide it on social media, during conversions others can hear or by leaving financial documents in unsafe places. That information may include:
- Social Security number
- Full name, address and birth date
- Credit card or bank account numbers
- Car insurance or medical insurance account numbers
- Details that can tip off people to your account-recovery questions, such as your mother's maiden name or your home town
With this information, criminals could impersonate you, max out your credit cards, rent an apartment, steal your frequent-flyer miles or act out a number of other bad-guy fantasies. Thieves can even access the Social Security number of a deceased person, commit fraud, and create problems for the estate.
Types of identity theft
You've probably heard about—or have experienced — thieves stealing credit card numbers or money from a bank account. To help catch this kind of identity theft, set up account alerts, scan your credit card and bank statements, and look for charges you don't recognize. But there are other types of identity theft to look for.
- Criminal identity theft – happens when someone commits a crime and gives the police false identifying information
- Medical identity theft – when a thief steals a health insurance card and gets medical care or prescription drugs
- Tax identity theft – when a crook files a tax return in your name and nabs your refund
- Child identity theft – when a thief opens accounts using a child’s Social Security number
And that doesn’t cover everything. You can read more about these and other types of identity theft, including employment identity theft and senior identity theft.
Techniques identity thieves use
Criminals are itching to get their hands on your data everywhere, online and offline. That’s one of the basic facts about identity theft. So, it’s smart to understand how thieves steal your information and how to counter it.
2 ways thieves steal your information offline
- Shoulder surfing – happens when thieves peek over your shoulder as you type sensitive information into a computer, phone or ATM. Or they may listen as you make a call and provide your account info.
- Dumpster diving — when a thief sifts through your garbage can. Discarded checks credit card are just two sources of valuable personal information.
3 Ways thieves may steal your information online
- Public Wi-Fi – Public Wi-Fi usually doesn't encrypt data, so anyone with the Wi-Fi password and some hacker know-how can monitor what you see and what you send. The hacker could commit identity theft if he or she intercepts your info.
- Unencrypted websites – Make sure a website is encrypted before you use it for a financial transaction. Typically, you'll see a picture of a lock in the URL field, and the URL will contain "https," meaning it's secure.
- Phishing – Watch out for identity thieves who contact you from a phone number or email address tailored to look familiar and trustworthy. The goal is to get personal information from you.
What to look for? A fishy email may have bad spelling or grammar, an unofficial-looking email address, an urgent request for information, and an attachment or link. If you get a suspicious email, contact the entity yourself and verify it's really an email from the person or company you trust.
Warning signs of identity theft Certain clues could indicate that you’re a victim of identity theft. It’s a good idea to watch for those indicators so you can act quickly and take action to help minimize the damage. The FTC cites some of the common warning signs:
- You notice withdrawals from your bank account that you didn’t make.
- You don’t receive bills or other mail.
- You get calls from debt collectors about debts you didn’t incur.
- You see unfamiliar accounts or charges on your credit report.
- You receive medical bills for services you didn’t receive.
- A health plan won’t insure you because your medical records indicate a condition you don’t have.
- The IRS sends you a letter saying more than one tax return was filed in your name. Or the IRS notifies you that you have income from an employer you never worked for.
- A company where you do business notifies you that your personal information was accessed in a data breach.
That’s just a sample. You can read more about these and other warning signs of identity theft, including a sudden drop in your credit score.
How to recover from identity theft
- Identity theft happens. Reacting quickly may be the most important thing you can do. Here are steps you can take if you've been a victim of identity theft.
- Contact the business where your information was misused, let them know there was fraudulent activity on your accounts, and close them.
- File a police report.
- Contact the three major credit reporting bureaus—TransUnion, Equifax and Experian — and consider putting a fraud alert on your credit. This ensures future creditors will take extra steps to verify your identity.
- Consider a credit freeze, which is stronger than a fraud alert and ensures no one can use your credit to open new accounts. You'll still need to monitor existing accounts.
- If you don't have a credit monitoring account, consider setting one up.
- Change your password, so they're strong and unique, for all your online accounts.
Reporting identity theft
If you believe you’ve been a victim of identity theft, it’s important to report the crime to the Federal Trade Commission. Here’s where to start : Report identity theft and get a recovery plan
By phone: 1-877-438-4338
The website will guide you through the process. You will receive an identity theft report and a recovery plan. Creating an account on the website offers these benefits:
- You can update your recovery plan.
- You can track your progress.
- You receive prefilled form letter to send to creditors.
If you report identity theft to the FTC by phone, the agency will collect details related to the theft. It won't provide you with an ID theft report or recovery plan. In some cases, you may also choose to report your identity theft to your local police station. According to the FTC, it could be necessary in these circumstances:
- You know the identity thief.
- The thief used your name in any interaction with the police.
- A creditor or another company affected by the identity theft requires you to provide a police report.
How to help protect against identity theft
No one can prevent all identity theft. But there are things you can do to help protect yourself from it. You can read about ways to help protect yourself from identity theft in more detail, but USA.gov notes some basic precautions:
- Keep your Social Security number in a safe place. Avoid carrying it . Don’t give out your Social Security number unless it’s absolutely needed.
- Protect your personal information. Don’t respond to unsolicited requests by phone, email, or online for your name, birthdate, Social Security, or bank account number.
- Collect your mail promptly. Place a hold on your mail when you’re away for several days.
- Enable the security features on your mobile devices.
- Contact the sender if your financial statements are late.
- Review your credit card and financial statements for unauthorized transactions.
- Shred documents and mail that contain sensitive personal information.
- Install firewalls and virus-detection software on your home computer.
- Use complex passwords and change them periodically.
- Review your credit reports annually. You can get a free credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus once a year at AnnualCreditReport.com
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Identity theft is when thieves steal your personal information in order to take over or open new accounts, file fake tax returns, rent or buy properties, or do other criminal things in your name.
Editorial note: Our articles provide eucational information for you. NortonLifeLock offerings may not cover or protect against every type of crime, fraud, or threat we write about. Our goal is to increase awareness about cyber safety. Please review complete Terms during enrollment or setup. Remember that no one can prevent all identity theft or cybercrime, and that LifeLock does not monitor all transactions at all businesses.