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Legend states that if you can follow the sound of a leprechaun's hammer to the end of the rainbow, you might be lucky enough to find the elusive creature's famed pot of gold. Of course, the mythical leprechaun won't make your task an easy one. More often than not, the mischievous leprechaun will trick you and steal your own gold instead.
In real life, you don't have to worry about little green-clad Irish fairies stealing your gold. What you do have to worry about are the very real thieves who might try to steal something even more valuable from you—your identity.
Just like Irish folklore warned of the leprechaun's trickery, it's a good idea to know how actual identity thieves operate as well. Knowing which tricks to expect in advance can make you better prepared to spot and avoid a scam.
Here's a look at five of the most common types of identity thieves and how you can protect yourself from each of them.
1. The Data Breach Thief
Probably the most well-known type of identity thief is the kind who steals your information from a third party by way of a data breach. Data breaches have become increasingly common. The Identity Theft Resource Center reports that more than 1.5 billion records have been exposed in some 9,868 data breaches during the past 14 years.
How to Protect Yourself
Unfortunately, there is very little you can do to protect your personal information once you have supplied it to a third party. At that point, the security of your data is out of your hands. Yet you can keep a close eye on your accounts and your credit reports so you can react quickly if a criminal gets his hands on your information.
Some smart steps you can take include:
- Review your bank statements and credit card statements thoroughly each month and keep an eye on your account activity even more frequently than that. If you discover any suspicious transactions, notify your bank or card issuer immediately.
- Check your three credit reports (from Experian, TransUnion and Equifax) often for any signs of identity theft. If you discover fraudulent accounts or unauthorized access to your credit reports, notify the credit reporting agency right away.
- Place fraud alerts, a credit lock or a security freeze—or all three—on your credit file if you suspect your personal information has been compromised.
2. The Phishing Thief
Another common type of identity thief is the one who tries to trick you into revealing sensitive personal information via email or text. Typically, these thieves will send you a message designed to look like it's from a company you have an account with already.
If you click on the link provided in the message and attempt to log into your account, however, you've just unintentionally handed over your login and password to the bad guys. Once a scammer has access to your account information, you could be vulnerable to many different types of identity theft.
How to Protect Yourself
To prevent crooks from tricking you with phony email or text messages, it can be helpful to know some of the signs of phishing scams. Following this set of rules may also help protect you from would-be thieves:
- Never click a link in an email or text message to access an online account. Instead, open a new browser and go directly to the login page yourself.
- Pay attention to the sender's email address or phone number when you receive a message.
- Be cautious about opening email attachments. Bogus attachments could contain malware, and opening them might install them onto your computer without your knowledge.
3. The Online Shopping Thief
The next type of identity thief you need to look out for is the one who will try to steal your information when you shop online. Fraudsters will often create fake websites or fake apps designed to trick you into revealing sensitive information such as your credit card number, username and password, or personal identifying information like name, address and phone number.
Unfortunately, it can be hard to spot fake websites and apps. Criminals have gotten good at making the phony ones look legitimate. If a website is pretending to be a real brand, it might even look nearly identical to the website it's impersonating.
How to Protect Yourself
Anything you can do to make it more difficult for an identity thief to get his hands on your information can potentially keep you safer from fraud. If you want to protect your information from becoming vulnerable online, you could try the following:
- Create passwords that are difficult for people to guess.
- Don't use the same passwords for multiple accounts.
- Change your passwords (and maybe even your usernames) frequently.
- Shop only on secured websites (look for a web address that begins with "https").
- Install security software on your personal computer.
- Don't enter your personal information on public computers or public Wi-Fi connections.
4. The Mailbox Bandit and Dumpster Diver
While data breaches, phishing scams and online shopping fraud represent high-tech ways to steal your information, some thieves use very low-tech methods to steal from you as well. In fact, some crooks will steal your mail directly out of your mailbox or trashcan to gain access to your personal information.
If thieves are successful in stealing your information from your mailbox or trash, they might be able to access your existing accounts to make purchases. They might also use your information to commit true name fraud (in other words, open new, fraudulent accounts in your name). Your address on bills and statements might even be changed so you don't detect you've been stolen from right away.
How to Protect Yourself
To help protect yourself from low-tech identity theft, make your information harder to access. For example, you might consider the following:
- Purchase a locking mailbox or rent a post office box to keep your mail secure.
- File a complaint with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service if you think your mail has been stolen.
- Shred any documents containing your personal information before you throw them out.
5. The "Friendly" Identity Thief
Perhaps the most disturbing type of identity thief is the one you know personally. Friendly fraud occurs whenever someone you know steals your personal identifying information without your knowledge or, obviously, your permission.
Unfortunately, children and elderly or disabled people may be especially vulnerable to these sorts of scams. If you're a caregiver to a minor child or disabled adult, it's important that you pay attention to warning signs and try protect your loved one from this sort of fraud.
How to Protect Yourself and Your Loved Ones
Thankfully, there are steps you can take to keep your information, or your child's information, safer from fraud. The following tips might help.
- Keep sensitive personal information like Social Security numbers locked away in a secure place.
- Do not share personal information or account numbers with anyone.
- Be on the lookout for warning signs of identity theft.
- Monitor your credit reports.
- Consider placing a security freeze on your child's credit reports if you think he or she may be at risk.
The Best Protection Is to Stay Alert
Because there are so many different types of identity thieves, it can be difficult to protect the privacy of your personal information. Yet anything you can do to make it harder for identity thieves to steal from you keeps you a little safer.
Monitoring your accounts and your credit for signs of identity theft is also a crucial step. While monitoring and review might not stop an identity thief from stealing your information, it can alert you when there's a problem so you have a chance to react quickly. Experian IdentityWorks℠ offers some helpful tools which can make it easier to monitor your credit and take control of your identity.
Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are author's alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer or other company, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. All information, including rates and fees, are accurate as of the date of publication.