Identity theft is when someone steals your personal information and uses it without your permission. It is a serious crime that can cause significant financial damage. Identity theft can happen in a variety of ways, including from people digging through your trash; using data breaches, skimming, impersonation scams, or phishing emails; and using unsecured public Wi-Fi. Identity theft can cost you money and time. It can even result in criminal charges. There are warning signs of identity theft that you can watch out for, such as keeping track of your bank statements. To protect yourself from identity theft, be wary of email scams and keep your credentials secure. If you have fallen victim to identity theft, there are steps you can take to recover your identity.
What is identity theft?
When someone uses your financial or personal information without authorization from you, this is identity theft. This can include your basic information, such as full name and birthday as well as more detailed data like your address, social security number (SSN), credit card information, medical accounts, and bank account details. With this information, a criminal can:
- Wrack up your credit card bills.
- Drain your bank account.
- Open new credit cards or accounts in your name.
- Steal your tax refund.
- Seek medical care as you.
- Apply for a government benefit or document.
- Impersonate you in criminal proceedings.
In 2020, there were nearly 1.5 million reports of identity theft to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Financial losses from identity theft are expected to rise again in 2021, reaching over $721 billion.
How identity theft happens
There are several methods that criminals use to steal your identity, ranging from low-tech means like digging through your trash to find bills and bank statements or stealing your mail to more high-tech means. The pandemic saw a surge in identity theft, potentially due to people spending more and more time in digital environments and putting more potentially sensitive information online. These are some common forms of cybercrime resulting in identity theft:
- Skimming: This involves stealing credit or debit card information, often by tampering with an ATM or electronic card reader.
- Phishing: This is using a scam email to trick people into giving more information, such as logins and passwords. The emails often appear to come from valid sources and use attachments or links to gain credentials.
- Fake websites: Online shopping scams often set up websites that look like trusted retailers to steal information, money, and potentially infect victims with malware.
- Phone scams: Scammers can offer either prizes or the threat of punishment to get victims to give out personal information. They can also spoof caller ID to make it look like the number is coming from a trusted source.
- Data breaches: Cyberattacks or unsafe security practices by companies can cause personal information to either be stolen by hackers or leaked unintentionally.
- Confidence fraud: Scammers deceive victims by impersonating another person or entity, such as the IRS, or build “relationships” online to convince someone to give them money and personal information.
- Public Wi-Fi: Public Wi-Fi networks are commonly insecure and therefore vulnerable to hackers, allowing cybercriminals to steal personal credentials.
Identity theft can also be done by a family member or friend stealing your information to use it without permission. Children can be victims of this, as parents use their information to open credit card accounts and commit identity fraud.
Impact & dangers of identity theft
It can take years to recover from identity theft. It often happens quickly and becomes invasive before you know it. The damage can be significant, and the impact can be far-reaching, including the following:
- Significantly damaging your credit
- Disqualifying you from loans
- Stalling or stealing your tax refund, unemployment funds, or stimulus checks
- Costing you your job or keeping you from getting one when your credit is run
- Draining your bank account
- Rejected medical claims
- Wrongful arrest
Victims of identity theft often have to spend a massive amount of time locked in arguments with financial institutions. They have to bear the burden of proof that their identity was indeed stolen. Nearly half of people surveyed who had their identity stolen during the pandemic reported not being able to pay their regular bills, PCMag reports.
How to know if your identity has been stolen
There are many warning signs of identity theft that can indicate that your information is being used without permission and fraudulently. The quicker you can catch on to identity theft, the better. Then, you can minimize and contain the damage. Here are 10 signs that could indicate your identity has been stolen:
- Withdrawals or purchases you did not make on your bank statements: Hackers that gain access to bank information or your debit card can steal money and make fraudulent purchases.
- Unfamiliar accounts or loans on your credit report: This can be a sign that someone has your information and is using it to set up accounts or take out loans in your name.
- Unexplained denial of credit: If an identity thief has stolen your information and damaged your credit without your knowledge, you might be denied a bank loan or credit card when you should not have been.
- Unexpected bills for services or accounts you do not have: Identity thieves often set up bills in the names of their victims. Unfamiliar bills can be signs of stolen identity.
- Drop in your credit score: This can be an indicator that someone is incurring debt on your behalf, as they are opening credit accounts and not paying them, causing your credit to take a hit.
- Job opportunity that is withdrawn or falls through: Prospective employers often run a credit check before hiring. If you are the victim of identity theft, this can produce a red flag.
- Collections calls for overdue accounts you do not recognize: Identity thieves often have all of your personal information, using your home address and phone number to set up fraudulent accounts that they are not paying on. This can cause bill collectors to come calling.
- IRS saying you have already filed a tax return: Identity theft often results in stealing your SSN, which fraudsters can then use to file for, and steal, your tax return.
- Your health insurance company saying you have reached your benefit limit: Identity theft can involve stealing your medical account information, which thieves can then use to gain medical care, causing your benefits to become maxed out.
- Missing mail: Theft from mailboxes is still a method of gaining personal information for identity theft. If you realize you are not getting mail when you are expecting it, this can be a warning sign that someone is trying to steal your identity.
Protecting Yourself From Identity Theft
The best way to avoid the headache and financial loss from identity theft is to protect yourself from it in the first place. There are several ways to help keep your identity and personal information safe.
- Shred any document that has your personal information on it.
- Use multi-factor authentication for login credentials, and keep your passwords strong and secure. Consider a password manager.
- Do not respond to suspicious emails or click on links or attachments. When logging into a website, ensure it is the legitimate one first
- Use best practice cybersecurity policies and security software.
- Regularly check your credit report, credit card statements, and bank accounts for suspicious activity.
- Do not overshare on social media or over digital platforms.
- Consider a credit or identity monitoring service.
- File your tax return early to beat fraudsters from doing it.
- Protect your passwords and login credentials from prying eyes.
- Keep your phone locked and personal papers locked safely away.
- Do not share your login credentials or passwords with anyone.
Actions to Take if You Spot Signs of Identity Theft
If you think you have been a victim of identity theft, take quick action to limit the damage and recover your identity. If you have identity theft insurance, file a claim immediately, and start to notify companies that you have been breached. Contact your bank and credit card companies to freeze your accounts and notify them of any fraudulent charges. You should also file a report with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and your local police. Change all your passwords and credentials immediately, tighten up your security practices, and keep an eye on all of your bills. Sign up for a credit monitoring service. Report fraud to the IRS, and start the identity recovery process with them. Recovering your identity after it has been stolen can take some work, but it is possible with these tips.
Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book 2020. (February 2021). Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
Facts + Statistics: Identity Theft and Cybercrime. (2021). Insurance Information Institute (III).
The Pandemic Made Life Even Worse for Identity-Theft Victims. (May 2021). PCMag.
Report to Help Fight Fraud. Federal Trade Commission (FTC).