When it comes to identity theft, an ounce of prevention is truly worth a pound of cure.
Because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, more people were home and using their computers than ever before, and this led to a corresponding increase in identity theft, with reported cases doubling to 1,387,615 in 2020, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
So if you’ve never thought about how to prevent your identity from getting stolen, now is the time to start, as there’s more opportunity for fraudsters to steal your information than ever before. Fortunately, there’s plenty of resources available to consumers, as well as simple steps you can take to protect yourself.
How To Recognize Identity Theft
Identify theft happens when someone illegally uses a person’s identifiable information to commit fraud. “If your identity has been stolen, identity thieves may open new credit accounts, file fake tax returns, buy or rent property, or take out loans that wreak havoc on your financial health and credit scores,” says Scott Hermann, CEO of the credit-monitoring service IdentityIQ. “The bottom line is that identity theft can happen to anyone.”
Hermann says with more people at home, there’s been a corresponding rise in data breaches and identity theft. “As many Americans’ personally identifiable information goes digital, it’s becoming increasingly vulnerable to hacks and theft by cybercriminals who profit from access to online accounts. The rise in crime doesn’t necessarily equate to more sophisticated tactics, just a bigger pond of victims to tap.”
How To Tell If Your Identity Has Been Stolen
The best way to tell if your identity has been stolen, as well as to prevent it from being stolen, is to pay close attention to your credit statements and bank accounts. It can also be helpful to get reports from the three major credit reference agencies Experian, Equifax and TransUnion, which monitor your accounts.
According to Hari Ravichandran, CEO and founder of Aura, a consumer digital security company, there are a few sure signs that your identity has been stolen.
-There are charges on your credit card that you don’t recognize.
-Your checks are bouncing.
-You’ve lost access to or been locked out of an account or online service.
-Your credit score has unexpectedly dropped.
-You receive notification that a tax return or unemployment benefits have been filed without your knowledge.
-You stop receiving bills you’ve typically received via mail, or you begin receiving bills that are inaccurate and that you have no recollection of incurring. You may also start receiving unauthorized authentication messages for accounts you don’t recognize.
What To Do If Your Identity Has Been Stolen
If you suspect someone is using your identity, your first step is to contact law enforcement. “File a crime report right away,” says Hermann. “You need to show copies of the report to let other agencies know that your personal information is at risk.”
After you have been in touch with law enforcement, your next step is to contact the three credit reference agencies and report the fraudulent charges. “Most, if not all, have ‘fraud victim’ processes that they will follow and ask you to follow,” says Jackie Barwell, Director of Fraud and Risk Product Management at ACI Worldwide. “They will put a watch on your account but also begin the ball rolling to recover the situation.”
When you are talking with the agencies, you should ask for either a credit freeze so no one can access your credit information, or ask for a fraud alert on your account, which will require creditors to take extra steps to confirm your identity before issuing new credit under your name.
After you’ve talked to your credit reference agency, Barwell says that your next move should be to contact any merchant or creditor where a charge was made in your name. “You may need to provide a case number of reports made to the credit agencies or law enforcement,” she says.
How To Prevent Identity Theft
“There is no one way that identity theft can happen,” says Barwell. “Instead, there are a combination of ways, many of which the individual can control, some of which they can’t.” As far as what is in your control, here are some steps that you can take.
-“I can’t overstate the value of taking steps to clean-up your online habits to reduce the risk of scams,” says Ravichandran. ” For instance, refrain from:
-Downloading software or files from third party sources without knowing their origin.
-Opening emails from senders you don’t recognize.
-Using the same password on multiple accounts and not changing your passwords on a regular basis.
-Clicking on hyperlinks in social media posts that you do not trust or haven’t researched.
-Using public wi-fi networks.
-Pay with a gift card, wire transfer or cryptocurrency over the phone or via text.
-Install software unless you know what it’s for or who/where it came from.
-Accepting friend requests on social media from people you don’t know.
-Allowing others to use your personal devices.
Additionally, Barwell says that “one obvious way people leave themselves vulnerable is not limiting what is shared on social media. When you open a Facebook account, you really don’t have to answer all the questions around ‘you’ that are presented to you. Be careful when answering innocent-looking surveys on the social media platforms, such as ‘what would your stage name be if you took the name of your first pet and the last thing you ate’? Not always, but often, this is yet another way to harvest more about ‘you’. ”
But it’s important to note that while we live in a digital world, you also need to protect your physical documents. Thieves will often go “dumpster diving” to find personal information, so check your mail regularly, shred any bill or credit statement or bank statement before throwing it away, and make sure that you are the only person with access to those bills, perhaps by investing in a locked mailbox.
“Unlocked mailboxes also make your personal information available to scammers,” says Hermann. “Your mail contains some of the most sensitive information that you can have: your name, address, contact information, bank account number and routing number on mailed checks, financial statements and much more.”
-And as always, trust your instinct. “Be wary of unsolicited contact (e.g. text, email, phone call) that seems to come from your bank but asking you for information, or to click on links,” says Barwell. “Always call them back using a known number, or do a Google search for the right contact information and call them using another device – just to be sure, especially if you are suspicious, or if the instruction appears ‘urgent.’”
How To Protect Yourself While Shopping Online
Online shopping has become a big part of modern life for its convenience, but any time you make a purchase online, you are opening yourself to potentially being targeted for identity theft. Hermann recommends taking the following steps to mitigate your risk.
-“Shop on sites you know and trust. Online con artists are skilled at making web destinations look and feel like familiar or legitimate retail sites. So make sure you double-check that the URL looks legitimate and isn’t made up of multiple long strings of numbers and letters before you click a link.”
-“Restrict online shopping to your home computer, rather than using a public network. You can run regular virus checks and updates on your hardware, but you can’t be sure a community computer or network is secure.”
-“If you can, use a credit card. Credit cards offer more fraud protection that you may not get using debit cards. In addition, credit card providers can notice identity theft activity even before you do.”
-“Don’t store your payment information as it can be compromised in the event of a data breach.”
Additionally, while you are shopping online, or using your home computer in general, Hermann also recommends investing in a VPN (virtual private network) to encrypt your data.
How To Prevent Medical Identity Theft
The most important step you can take to protect your medical information is to never share your health insurance information, Social Security Number, or any other personally identifiable information with anyone apart from trusted medical professionals. If you have any of this information on a document such as a bill, shred it once you are done.
From there, Hermann recommends taking the following measure to protect yourself.
-“Keep your documents in a safe place in your home, like a hidden lockbox for paper records and a locked medicine cabinet for prescriptions. Keep documents that are necessary, but don’t hold onto anything that has outlived its usefulness.”
-“If it’s something you can’t shred like a prescription bottle, use a marker to black out personal information.”
-“While you should keep your health insurance card on your person – it can make verifying your coverage easier if you ever need to visit a medical provider unexpectedly – you should regularly check that you still have it. If it is lost or stolen, you need to contact your insurance provider, so they can issue another card and prevent anyone else from using the old one.”
-“When you can, limit the amount of information you receive by mail and on paper; you can opt to receive your medical bills or EOB online. This won’t 100% protect you from medical identity theft, but it can limit the number of physical documents thieves can get their hands on.”
Other Resources To Protect Yourself
The government provides a number of free resources to help the public educate themselves about Identity Theft and steps you can take to protect yourself, including Usa.gov, Consumer.gov and Consumer.ftc. For extra protection, there are also security agencies such as the above-mentioned Aura, which offers fraud alerts and up to $1,000,000 in identity theft insurance, and IdentityIQ, which offers real-time monitoring from all three major credit bureaus and up to 12 credit reports per year.
Identity theft protection services mean having the tools you need to monitor your identity along with the peace of mind knowing you’re protected with identity theft insurance and restoration assistance,” says Hermann. “Protection varies by services and plans. The best choice among identity theft protection services is one that fits your budget and offers you the coverage you care about.”