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Why you should care
Identity theft can be difficult to spot and often goes unnoticed for months or even years.
When your identity is stolen, cybercriminals can open credit card accounts, get loans, cause your name to get criminal charges, sell your information, and commit other fraudulent activity.
Fraudsters are continually finding new ways and are getting better at stealing your information.
From 2017 to 2019, the number of reported identity theft nearly doubled from 370,917 to 650,572 (Source: Consumer Sentinel Network).
The Consumer Sentinel Network is maintained by the Federal Trade Commission, also known as the FTC.
They track consumer fraud and identity theft complaints that have been reported to law enforcement agencies and private organizations. Identity theft is the top category of fraud reports.
According to a study by Javelin Strategy and Research, new account fraud is the focus of many fraudsters. The most common types of accounts are mortgages, student loans, car loans, and credit cards.
As the number of businesses that rely of electronic data grows, more of your personal and financial information will go online.
Some data breaches occur, and statistics show the cybercrime will continue to grow.
You need to protect yourself because becoming a victim can hurt you financially and emotionally.
It’s also time-draining to resolve. Although you can’t be immune to identity theft, there are steps that you can take to prevent it.
Spotting identity theft
Checking your finances and being aware of what companies have your information will help you spot if you’re a victim of identity theft.
The following are signs that it may be happening to you:
- Your bank account is showing unauthorized transactions.
- The checks that you write are getting rejected.
- Your credit or debit cards are getting declined.
- Bills or mail aren’t arriving.
- You get a notice from the IRS that more than one tax return was filed in your name, or that you have income from someone other than your employer.
- A company sends you a notice that your personal information was exposed in a data breach.
- You receive a medical bill for a service you didn’t use.
- Debt collection companies call you regarding accounts you didn’t open.
- If you thought you had good credit but got denied for a loan, ask the lender for the reasons and you may find something you didn’t know was on your credit report.
Although you can’t stop identity theft from happening, there are many steps that you can take to make yourself less vulnerable and more protected.
The following are tips and ways to protect your information:
1. Keep your social security number secure. Be reluctant to give out your social security number. Just because someone asks for it doesn’t mean you need to provide the information. It’s also a good habit to not carry around your social security card because your wallet can get stolen or lost.
2. Check your finances. Monitor your transactions and credit reports to ensure that everything is yours. If you find any unauthorized transactions or accounts, alert your financial institution as soon as possible.
3. If you need to get rid of documents with your information on them, shred them. Using a shredder is one of the best ways to ensure that fraudsters don’t find your personal information in the trash.
Using a password manager is more secure than keeping track of your passwords or using one that you come up with because it stores your passwords in a secure vault that you can unlock with a master password.
They also offer password generators that let you create strong and unique passwords without having to memorize them.
5. Use the privacy settings on social media. Keep your information as private as possible. Even a phone number or email can lead to identity theft.
6. Freeze your credit. Placing a credit freeze restricts access to your credit report, which makes it difficult for fraudsters to open new accounts under your name.
It’s also known as a security freeze. Remember to lift your credit freeze when you apply for anything that involves pulling your credit history then place the freeze once you’re finished.
Freeze your credit for free with the following agencies:
7. Be careful with public Wi-Fi. Your information and credentials can be stolen when you’re using public Wi-Fi.
When you’re using public Wi-Fi, don’t enter personal or sensitive information. You can also update your sharing and firewall settings to make your session more secure.
8. Keep up with your mail. Stolen mail can result in identity theft. USPS offers a program called Informed Delivery, which sends a preview of the mail you’ll be receiving for the day. If you’re going out of town, place a hold on your mail.
If you find out that your identity has been stolen, report it immediately. Take the following steps to report identity theft:
1. Call the companies where the fraud occurred. Explain that your identity was stolen and ask them to close or freeze the accounts. Be sure to change all of the login information.
2. Place fraud alerts. Call the following credit bureaus to place a fraud alert:
- Equifax: 888-766-0008
- Experian: 888-397-3742
- TransUnion: 800-680-7289
3. Report it to law enforcement. Be as detailed as possible when you’re completing the police report. Get a copy of the police report when it’s processed because you may need to provide a copy of the police report to other places.
4. Check your credit reports. Look for accounts that you don’t recognize and inquiries from creditors that you haven’t authorized. If you find anything, contact the credit bureaus to remove or block the unauthorized accounts or inquiries.
5. Report it to the Federal Trade Commission. Visit ftc.gov or call the FTC to report identity theft.
Recovering from the damages of identity theft can take time. However, if you’ve made it to this step, you took many of the necessary actions to stop any further damage.
Next, focus on closing the accounts you didn’t open, getting reimbursed for fraudulent charges, correcting your credit report, and practicing secure habits to prevent it from happening again.
Depending on the type of fraud and identity theft that occurred, you may need to take extra steps. Speak to the specific company to figure out how to resolve the issues.
For more information, visit the Federal Trade Commissions website. They have free publications to help you navigate these tough times.