Don't think identity theft can happen to you? Think again. It's one of the fastest-growing crimes in America. And it can be hard to know if you're a victim. That's why it's important to pay attention to identity theft signs.
In the digital age, personal information is particularly vulnerable. That's because data can be easily breached, putting your private records and accounts in the hands of bad actors. It's important to know the risks and red flags. It's also crucial to know how to prevent identity theft and what to do immediately after it occurs.
The numbers don't lie
Truth is, identity theft is a major problem suffered by more people than you think. Consider these stats:
- Over 14 million people experienced identity theft in 2018. That's down from 16.7 million tallied in 2017 - but still an alarmingly high number.
- Last year, the Federal Trade Commission handled 1.4 million fraud reports, equating to $1.48 billion in losses.
- Identity fraud sufferers are bearing a greater burden. In 2018, 3.3 million people were responsible for at least some of the liability of the fraud they experienced -- almost three times higher than that reported in 2016. Their costs out-of-pocket tallied $1.7 billion.
- Americans are much more likely to be identity theft victims than people from other countries.
- Nearly nine in 10 consumers have left their personal information exposed while accessing bank accounts, emails, or financial information.
Identity theft signs to watch for
Ben Hartwig, chief security officer for InfoTracer, says there are several identity theft signs that indicate you've been victimized.
"One is getting a bill for goods or services you didn't purchase that appear on your credit or debit card statements. Bills or other financial mail that never arrive is also a red flag," he says. "An unexpected notice from your health insurance company that you reached your benefits limit is another. And a job opportunity that unexpectedly falls through after a prospective employer runs your credit check is further evidence."
Robert Siciliano, ETFMG.com cybersecurity expert, adds other examples:
- Being denied a tax refund because someone else claimed it
- Calls from bill collectors for services not authorized
- Seeing unauthorized transfers or withdrawals on bank accounts and credit cards
- Getting turned down for credit or a financial account despite having good credit
- Merchants declining your checks or credit cards
One of the biggest telltale signs is anything that looks suspicious on your credit report.
"Errors, discrepancies, or unfamiliar activity on your credit reports suggest possible identity theft," says Paul Bischoff, privacy advocate with Comparitech.
How to prevent identity theft
The good news is that you're not powerless. There are steps you can take to reduce the risks and protect your personals.
For starters, use secure passwords online. Stay away from bad websites, especially those that don't start with "https." And never give out personal information to sites you don't trust.
Additionally, engage in basic cybersecurity hygiene practices.
"Update your operating system, software programs, and hardware devices. Install and use antivirus software," says Siciliano. "Rely on password manager software that enables you to create and store strong and different passwords across multiple accounts."
Sign up for a credit monitoring service for extra peace of mind, too.
Also, "safeguard your wallet, purse or briefcase at all times. Consider locking your mailbox or using a post office box for mail," Hartwig suggests. "File valuable information in a locked drawer or safe, as well."
Don't forget to review your free annual credit reports -- one for each of the three major credit reporting bureaus (Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax). You can do this for free once a year at annualcreditreport.com. Carefully note any account, purchase or info you aren't responsible for.
Lastly," review your financial account statements for unauthorized activity at least once per month. Don't forget to check your children's accounts and files as well," says Bischoff.
What to do if you've been scammed
In addition to the recommendations above, take the following steps if you suspect or confirm that you're an identity theft victim:
- Contact your local police department if you identify the thief.
- Create a fraud alert, which can prevent an identity thief from opening new accounts using your information. You can do so for free by contacting Equifax; 800-685-1111; TransUnion; 888-909-8872; and Experian; 888-EXPERIAN (888-397-3742)
- Contact the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) at IdentityTheft.gov or 877-438-4338. They'll aid you in creating an Identity Theft Report and recovery plan.
- Phone the IRS at 800-908-4490 if you think your Social Security number or individual taxpayer identification number has been breached.
- Contact the fraud department at any credit card, business, or store you have an account with that was compromised. Ask them to freeze your legit account, close any fraudulent account, and delete unauthorized charges.
"Also, review your credit reports and refute any unauthorized account with each of the three credit bureaus," Siciliano advises.