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More than 14 million people were victims of identity theft in 2018, according to Javelin Strategy & Research. And while the number of fraud cases has decreased from past years, millions of innocent people will still experience stolen identity this year and beyond.
Everyone is at risk of identity theft. To check for identity theft to lessen the damage, you need to identify and address the issue as quickly as possible by looking for signs of fraud, protecting your personal information and taking other important steps. Read on to learn how to find out if you're a victim of identity theft and what you can do if you suspect you're a victim.
How Do I Know if My Identity Has Been Stolen?
You know your home has been broken into by certain telltale signs: a broken window, a door left open, an empty shelf where your flat screen TV used to sit. You know you are a victim of a crime because you're familiar with your household setup and with the objects you own.
Discovering identity theft also requires being intimately familiar with your surroundings—in this case, with the information on your credit report. The more you know about your credit report and what it holds about you, the better aware you can be of potential problems. Your credit report has all your current credit account information, so if you find something out of place there—like a credit card you never applied for, for instance—it could be an indication that cyber thieves have stolen your personal information.
There are other indications that signal your identity may have been stolen or is at a high risk of being compromised. These include:
- You aren't receiving important mail such as bills or checks.
- You get bills for items you didn't order or statements for credit cards you didn't sign up for.
- You are denied credit, despite having an excellent credit rating.
- You have unauthorized bank transactions or withdrawals.
- You've received notice that your personally identifiable information (PII) was part of a data breach, especially when it involves your current or past employer, which will have sensitive information like your Social Security number on file.
- Your electronic tax filing is denied.
- You receive unauthorized authentication messages by text or email for unknown accounts.
How Does Identity Theft Happen?
There is a lot of emphasis on protecting yourself online, with good reason. The more information you put out there about yourself, whether on social media or by saving your details on an e-commerce site, the more data there is for hackers to steal and then sell on the dark web for other thieves to use. Always think twice about what you share and how that information could be used by an identity thief.
But identity fraud is more often committed through low-tech means. Dumpster diving is a great example. Your trash reveals a lot about you. Neighborhood recycling bins are filled with magazines and catalogs, junk mail, old bill statements—all kinds of papers that include your full name, address and other bits of information about you, like your hobbies, travel interests and spending habits. A tossed-out cellphone bill would give a thief the mobile numbers of everyone in your household, for example, while a catalog for a high-end store shows you make expensive purchases.
Thieves rely on old-fashioned theft, too, such as stealing a purse or wallet or taking mail from a home mailbox. But when they do go with higher-tech options, it is often through card skimming on ATMs and gas pumps, phishing emails to get you to hand over details through a scam, or through unsecured Wi-Fi connections.
How Do I Prevent It From Happening?
While no one can totally prevent identity theft from happening, you can take steps that will minimize your risk of becoming a victim. These include:
- Protect and monitor your mail. Set up an Informed Delivery account through the United States Postal Service. USPS scans your mail and sends you a PDF of the letter-sized mail you should receive each day. It also alerts you of package deliveries through the post office. You'll know if mail is missing; USPS provides steps to take if that's the case. Switch to a locked mailbox for deliveries or rent a post office box. And when sending sensitive mail, try to drop it off inside the post office.
- Never carry your Social Security card. Instead, store it in a secure location. Also carry passports, credit cards, medical ID cards and other identifiers only when you need them.
- Shred it. Shred everything with your name, address and other PII before sending it to recycling or the trash.
- Avoid public Wi-Fi use. Never use public Wi-Fi for banking, bill paying or sharing sensitive information.
- Use strong and unique passwords. Also utilize two-factor authentication whenever possible.
- Watch what you share on social media. The quizzes and questionnaires might be fun to fill out, but they provide information about you that identity thieves can use. Remember, nothing is truly private on the internet, no matter how good your social media privacy settings are.
What Can I Do if I Suspect Identity Theft?
If you think you are a victim of identity theft, the first thing to do is limit the damage. If your credit cards or debit card were stolen, contact the card issuers and your bank immediately. Next, double-check your credit reports with the three credit bureaus (Experian, TransUnion and Equifax) to confirm any type of unusual activity and get help dealing with the breach. If you find something is amiss, consider locking or freezing your credit or setting up a fraud alert to let possible future lenders know you've been a victim of identity theft so they can take extra measures to verify your identity. Also inform your bank or other financial institutions you believe your identity has been compromised.
Identity theft is a crime, so contact your local police department. While authorities may not be able to do much, they can take reports and be on the alert for suspicious behavior that could involve your name or address. But first reach out to the Federal Trade Commission to file a report. The agency will provide steps you need to take and paperwork to file reports (including how to deal with police reports), and help you dispute fraudulent charges.
Becoming a victim of identity theft is a harrowing experience. It can take months and many hours of filling out forms and working with agencies and businesses to recover your identity once it is stolen. Recognizing the signs of identity theft and taking steps to prevent it can save you months and years of heartache, stress and loss.