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Identity thieves are hard at work, finding new and creative ways to cash in using other people's personal information. In 2020, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) received 4.7 million reports of fraud, a 45% increase over 2019, which resulted in a total of $3.3 billion in financial losses. Identity theft was the leading fraud category, accounting for 29% of fraud incidents.
The unfortunate reality is that we're all at risk for identity theft, which can wreak havoc on your financial life. Now for some good news—there are simple steps you can take to reduce your vulnerability and catch it more quickly if it does happen. The sooner you catch identity theft, the more rapidly you can mount a response to help minimize the damage. Here's how to check to spot signs of foul play that may indicate you're a victim of identity theft.
How Do I Know if My Identity Has Been Stolen?
Your credit report is a reflection of the credit accounts that have been opened in your name—credit cards, student loans, mortgages, auto loans, you name it. If a fraudster opens a new account using your personal information, it will pop up on your credit report (typically within a month or two). That's why monitoring your credit report is an easy and effective way to uncover identity theft in its early stages. An unfamiliar new account, as well as errors in your personal information such as your Social Security number, could indicate potential identity theft.
Other things that could be warning signs that your identity has been stolen include:
- Statements or bills for accounts you never opened arriving in the mail
- Statements or bills for legitimate accounts not showing up
- You're unexpectedly denied credit
- Unauthorized bank transactions or withdrawals
- Notification that a tax return has been filed on your behalf without your knowledge
- Unauthorized authentication messages for accounts you don't recognize
How Does Identity Theft Happen?
There are many types of identity theft, which means red flags of fraud can take various forms. That said, certain types of fraud are more commonplace than others. Identity theft that results in government benefit fraud or new credit card accounts being created in your name is more common than, say, student loan fraud, according to the FTC. And recently, Javelin Strategy & Research found that identity thieves appear to be moving more toward account takeovers, which is when they gain access to one or more of your accounts to make unauthorized transactions or money transfers.
What leads to identity theft can vary as well. Identity thieves may defraud consumers by stealing their wallet or by gaining access to important documents during a home burglary, but there are many common ways identity theft can happen:
- Mail fraud: Thieves who intercept your mail could get their hands on everything from checks in your name to credit and debit cards.
- Online shopping fraud: Unsecured public Wi-Fi networks can be leveraged to steal your information when you're shopping online. More sophisticated operations involve phony merchant websites that aim to collect your payment information at checkout.
- Tax identity theft: This happens when someone files a tax return in your name, then makes off with your tax refund. You might not become aware of this fraud until you go to file your taxes.
- Senior identity theft: There's no shortage of scams that target senior citizens. It can involve calling the victim and posing as an IRS agent or as someone with the Social Security Administration, then coaxing them to divulge personal information.
- Medical identity theft: This kind of fraud occurs when someone poses as someone else to receive medical care in their name.
How to Protect Yourself From Identity Theft
The more you're able to protect yourself from identity theft, the less likely you are to be victimized. These proactive measures are centered around keeping your personal data safe from prying eyes, and creating a stronger barrier between yourself and identity thieves:
- Be mindful of your passwords. Create strong passwords, and be sure not to use the same password more than once. Secure password managers like 1Password and Bitwarden are solid options that can help you keep track of them. In addition to keeping strong passwords, opt for two-factor authentication whenever possible and always password-protect your devices.
- Never share personal information over the phone. Legitimate institutions—including banks, the IRS and the Social Security Administration—will never call you and demand that you share things like your Social Security number or bank account number. Scammers, on the other hand, will.
- Periodically check your credit reports. Coming across suspicious activity on your credit reports, such as new accounts you don't recognize, is a quick way to identify potential fraud. You can get free copies of your credit reports from all three major credit bureaus through AnnualCreditReport.com. You can also check your credit report (and score) for free with Experian.
- Be careful using public Wi-Fi. Only use secure, trusted networks when banking, paying bills or doing online shopping. The safest place to handle sensitive needs is at home on your own network.
- Monitor your mail. If you set up an Informed Delivery account through the United States Postal Service, you'll get alerts of incoming mail before it arrives. (This way you'll know if something is missing.) It's also smart to shred any mail containing your personal information before trashing it.
- Don't keep your Social Security card in your wallet. The same goes for credit cards you rarely use. The fewer items you have in your wallet, the easier it'll be to clean up the mess if your wallet is lost or stolen.
- Review notices from your health care providers and insurance company. Look for anything out of the ordinary, like unfamiliar bills or dates of service that seem suspicious. These could be signs of medical identity theft.
You can create an account with Experian and sign up for free credit monitoring, which will alert you to things like changes in your credit score that can indicate fraud. You might also consider paying for the suite of identity protection services included in Experian CreditWorks℠ Premium. Experian CreditWorks℠ features include three-bureau credit monitoring, an up to $1 million ID theft insurance policy and dark web surveillance that monitors the dark web for your personal information.
What Can I Do if I Suspect Identity Theft?
If you think you've been the victim of identity theft, the first order of business is to contact the companies affected by the fraud. For instance, if it involves one of your debit or credit cards, you'll want to call the bank or credit card issuer to have them cancel the card and issue a new one with a different number to prevent more unauthorized charges. Change account details such as usernames, PINs and passwords associated with the card to prevent further fraud.
Once you've secured the affected accounts, consider reporting it to government agencies. Doing so can unlock resources and support while you work on undoing the damage. Filing a police report may be in order, especially if you think reporting it can help law enforcement catch the perpetrator. The FTC's fraud reporting website, IdentityTheft.gov, is where you'll find detailed instructions on dealing with various forms of identity theft.
To be safe, you'll also want to review your credit report for any information that's appearing as a result of fraud. If you find any, contact the company reporting it and request to have it removed. If that doesn't work, you have the right to dispute credit report information with each of the three major credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax and TransUnion). Checking your credit reports can also alert you to fraud you didn't know about. However, it may take a few monthly billing cycles for a fraudulent new credit account to appear on your report, so be sure to continue to monitor your credit regularly going forward.
You can add another layer of protection by freezing your credit or setting up a fraud alert, which are both free. The latter appears on your credit report and instructs lenders to take additional measures to verify your identity when processing new applications in your name. A credit freeze goes a step further and actually prohibits new creditors from pulling your credit report until you unfreeze it. Without access to your credit report, lenders cannot approve any applications for new credit. Remember, though, that freezes and fraud alerts will also restrict legitimate new applications for credit, so you'll likely need to take extra steps if you plan on applying for a loan or credit card while those safeguards are in place.
The Bottom Line
You can't fight back against fraud if you don't know it's happening. Understanding how to check for identity theft can help you uncover wrongdoing before it gets worse. Monitoring your credit report is a simple way to spot signs of identity theft so that you can respond as quickly as possible. Beyond that, taking steps to prevent fraud is one of your strongest weapons.