Identity theft occurs when someone steals another person’s personal information. And it’s the nature of this type of crime to usually happen when you least expect it.
Investigators ask who, what, where, when and how while they’re trying to crack a case. And you might ask similar questions about identity theft—whether you want to protect yourself or you’re trying to pick up the pieces after your identity has been stolen.
Who is affected by identity theft?
Anyone can be impacted by identity theft. No matter if you’re young or old, male or female, rich or otherwise, you could find yourself dealing with the headache and heartache that often results from stolen information. In fact,
In some cases, identity theft can cause lasting damage. Financially, your credit record can take a hit until fraudulent transactions are disputed and resolved. That could affect interest rates you pay or whether your applications for loans and credit are accepted.
There’s no guarantee you can prevent identity theft from happening. But there are steps you can take to help reduce the risk of becoming a victim, or at least minimize the long-term damage.
Types of identity theft to look out for
While this list isn’t exhaustive, understanding the common ways in which you could be targeted for identity theft can help keep you on alert.
Phishing is a fraudulent practice in which a communication, like an email or text message, purports to be from a reputable source in order to gather personal information.
An example of phishing is an email or call claiming to be the Internal Revenue Service, asking to verify your Social Security number or a bank account for your tax refund. What you need to know is that the IRS and other government entities will not call or email demanding immediate response.
Smishing is similar to phishing, but it in the form of a text message. Have you ever had your phone light up with an urgent text from a familiar bank, credit card or retailer containing a link to an account alert? Or a link claiming you won a prize? It could even seem legitimate, because how else would they have your cell number? But it’s common for fraudsters buy phone lists to see who will fall for it.
Pharming comes in the form of an email that appears to be from a big-box retailer asking you to “click this link” for details on a big purchase they claim you made. But in this case, you didn’t make the purchase in question, so you click through to settle a misunderstanding. However, clicking the link could release malware, which is software that intentionally damages your device.
Financial scams are also common, especially during crises and natural disasters, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, hurricanes, forest fires and tornadoes. Fraudsters take advantage of your generosity by disguising their scams as honest efforts to raise money for people in need. They might use your community as a backdrop, promising to keep the support local.
Real charities don’t mind if you confirm their credentials using online tools, such as
Be on the alert for scams targeting older people, notably financial exploitation, which happens when someone’s assets are taken by a stranger, family member or friend for their own personal benefit. Learn more about
One in three adults have been affected by identity theft.
How to protect your information
Social media is a treasure trove of information for fraudsters. They create fake profiles using your personal information and photos you have uploaded, and then turn around and use those profiles to scam others. When you discover you’ve been hacked, act quickly to change your password.
Adjust your privacy settings
Take the time to lock down your privacy settings as much as possible on all social channels you use. And as you use social media, be aware that what you share might help someone steal your identity. For example, wait until you’re back from vacation to post photos or you might inadvertently be inviting thieves to target your mailbox or home while you’re gone.
Securely store important assets containing personal information
Identity theft can also happen from old-fashioned stealing. If you’re like most people, you have a driver’s license, a mailbox, credit and debit cards, a Social Security number and computer access. These are the tools of the trade for thieves, so do what you can to take control of them and keep them safe.
If you have credit cards, consider leaving most of the cards at home. If you carry your Social Security card in your wallet, transfer it to a safe place immediately.
Shred your documents
Fraudsters dumpster dive to collect account numbers or credit card offers in the trash. Shred your paperwork, account statements, you name it, before throwing it away. Never toss receipts or other documents in public trash cans, because you don’t know who is watching.
Monitor both mail and email
With email, use caution when opening any links. Remember, fraudsters might hijack a friend’s email address, so always be skeptical. And consider signing up for Informed Delivery from the U.S. Postal Service. It’s easy and provides a record of first-class mail sent to your address.
Check your personal accounts frequently
Always review your monthly bank account and credit card statements to confirm activity and look for unauthorized transactions.
Use secure internet connections
Criminals can access your phone or computer from unsecured connections. Make sure your home internet is secure, and limit use of public Wi-Fi to only those establishments that are trustworthy. When in doubt, connect to the internet with your phone’s hotspot, if possible.
Create strong passwords and PINs
Even if you don’t want to access financial accounts online, create a login and strong password anyway. Avoid the use of the last four digits of Social Security numbers, birth dates, middle name, consecutive numbers or anything else that could easily be discovered by thieves. Use multi-factor authentication when possible. These steps could prevent an imposter from gaining access to your accounts.
Signs your identity has been compromised
Despite your best efforts, it’s not always immediately obvious that your identity has been stolen. But how to you know if your identity has been compromised?
Warning signs that you may be a victim of identity theft:
- You note unexpected purchases from your bank account.
- Your credit cards have unexplained charges or have been maxed out.
- You notice unusual activity on your social media accounts.
- You stop getting the usual bills in the mail.
- Debt collectors are contacting you.
- You get medical bills for health care services you did not receive.
How to recover if you’ve been affected by identity theft
Identity theft is a complex crime, but it’s also a hassle.
Where identity theft is concerned, you can’t always check a box and have it go away. So, if it happens to you, it can feel overwhelming. One way to regain the sense of control is to start the new habits previously discussed to protect your information.
Get professional guidance
Want to make sure you have a solid plan in place?