Data breaches and criminals trafficking in stolen personal information can allow thieves to hijack your identity even if you've never been taken in by a scam like phishing, vishing or smishing. That's why it's vital to watch for signs your identity has been compromised in addition to anticipating and avoiding scams that target you directly.
By learning the following telltale signs and checking for them regularly, you may be able to detect identity theft early and act before there's significant damage to your finances or credit.
1. Unrecognized Bank or Credit Card Transactions
Stray charges or other unauthorized transactions made on bank or credit card accounts can indicate that criminals have stolen or cloned your debit or credit card or obtained your account information through other illicit means. These irregularities can be easy to overlook in the era of electronic payments, paperless statements and online banking, especially since criminals often use small transactions (including deposits) to confirm account access before making a big charge or withdrawal.
Try to get in the habit of reviewing statements for your bank and credit card accounts at least monthly, even if you haven't used a given card. If you make this part of your monthly bill payment routine, you may spot suspicious activity in time to prevent more significant theft.
2. Unfamiliar Inquiries on Your Credit Report
An inquiry appears on your credit report when a lender, retailer, landlord or other entity requests a credit check. An unfamiliar inquiry on your credit report could be an innocuous result of a legitimate inquiry from a company you're familiar with checking your credit under a different name. But in some cases, it could mean criminals have applied for credit using your personal information. If issued a loan or a new credit card on the strength of your hard-earned credit history, they'll likely make purchases or abscond with borrowed cash, saddling you with debt or unpaid bills that ultimately tarnish your credit record.
Among the many benefits of checking your credit reports regularly is that catching an unauthorized inquiry could be the one that spares you the most grief. If you spot a strange inquiry, make sure it's unrelated to your own activity and contact the lender using the information included in the inquiry listing on your credit report. If fraudulent activity is suspected, it may make sense to contact appropriate law enforcement and also consider placing a fraud alert or security freeze on your credit reports.
3. Unexpected Bills or Statements
If you receive a bill for goods or services you never purchased, or statements from a bank or credit card account you never opened, don't just shrug it off. It could be a sign of fraudulent activity taken in your name. Contact the company or institution about any unauthorized transactions and, if fraud appears to be the case, report it to appropriate authorities and take the steps outlined below to protect your credit and finances.
4. Unexpected Lack of Bills or Statements
If a regular bill, bank or credit card statement stops arriving on its regular schedule, it could be an indication of an account takeover scheme, by which crooks use stolen information to hijack your account for use in fraud or other criminal activities.
You learned in the tip above that you should check all your bills and statements monthly, so if you note the absence of any, follow up with the relevant company to find out where your bills may be going. If they've been redirected without your authorization, have them start a fraud investigation and secure your other accounts.
5. Surprise Credit Score Drops
It's normal for credit scores to shift a few points each month as loan and credit card balances ebb and flow, and scores could drop by a larger margin within a few months of running up an unusually large charge or missing a payment. However, a sudden credit score drop with no discernible cause could be a warning of criminal activity.
If an identity thief takes out a loan or credit card in your name, they'll inevitably fail to make payments on that debt. These missed payments will appear on your credit reports, and since payment history is the single biggest factor contributing to your FICO® Score☉ , even one missed payment can cause a major drop in your scores.
A payment isn't considered delinquent until it's gone unpaid 30 days after its due date, and it could take several weeks from then to appear on your credit reports. Since a surprise credit score drop could be a late indicator of trouble, you should act immediately to investigate the source and protect yourself.
6. Denial of Loan or Credit Applications
If you have a solid credit history and lenders have been willing to extend you loans or credit cards in the past, getting turned down on one or more credit applications could be a sign that criminals have damaged your credit history.
If a credit application is denied on the basis of your credit score, the lender must provide an explanation that includes the score they used, along with information on factors that determined that score. Factors that sound wrong—with unexpected mentions of "delinquency" or "collections," for instance—are grounds for immediate action. Even if the explanations aren't alarming, you should check your credit report following and denial of credit and follow up promptly on any unauthorized accounts or activities.
7. Calls From Debt Collectors
Letters, phone calls or emails from collection agencies seeking payment on a debt you don't owe could be another sign of identity theft. A criminal may have run up a bill in your name.
If you're being pursued for a payment you don't owe, check with the collection agent about the nature of the debt in question, and make inquiries about the alleged transaction(s). You should also check your credit reports for signs of the collection account (which can hurt your credit score) and for evidence of other unauthorized activity related to the matter, such as the opening of an unauthorized credit account.
Delinquent debts are typically not turned over to collection agencies until payments are months overdue, so unexpected debt collection calls can be a very late indication of criminal activity. You should act immediately to report the activity and protect your finances and credit history.
8. Unusual Activity on Your Social Security Account
Because Social Security numbers (SSNs) are used as personal identifiers by many financial institutions as well as the federal government, they're popular targets for identity thieves and may be bought and sold on illicit dark web exchanges along with account numbers, passwords and other personal information.
For that reason, it's a good idea to set up a free account with the Social Security Administration, and check your Social Security Statement regularly to ensure no one is collecting your benefits without permission. If you spot unusual activity on your account, or otherwise believe your SSN has been stolen, take action immediately to contain the damage.
What to Do if You Suspect Identity Theft
If you think you've been victimized by identity thieves, it's important to act quickly to limit the extent of the damage and the time it will take to sort everything out. Prompt action also can increase the odds that law enforcement will be able to track down the culprits.
- Place a fraud alert or security freeze on your credit reports at the three national credit bureaus (Experian, TransUnion and Equifax). Requesting a fraud alert at one bureau automatically applies alerts at all three bureaus, so that may be the speediest course of action. You can decide later between freezing your credit reports and extending the fraud alert.
- Visit IdentityTheft.gov, the Federal Trade Commission's online clearinghouse for identity theft information. Using information you supply, the site can generate a recovery plan for you and provide an Identity Theft Report you can furnish to law enforcement and to companies. IdentityTheft.gov also can generate letters you can use to notify financial institutions, creditors, collections agencies and other concerned parties.
- Once you've alerted all parties to the theft, take steps to better defend all your financial and credit accounts, whether they've been tampered with or not:
- Change passwords and PINs on your online accounts and smartphone apps, and consider using a password manager that generates and stores secure, random passwords that thieves will have difficulty guessing.
- Activate multifactor authentication at online accounts and apps, to add an additional security that can thwart thieves even if they have your passwords and account numbers.
- If available, enable fingerprint or face recognition on your smartphone or tablet to protect against misuse in case the device is lost or stolen.
- Keep a close eye on your credit reports and account statements. Follow up immediately on any unusual entries and file a dispute to remove any inaccurate credit report entries. Consider using account alerts and credit monitoring services to automate the process.
The Bottom Line
Identity theft is an ever-present threat in the digital age, and watching out for signs of fraudulent activity is one important part of protecting yourself. Paying attention to your bills, bank statements and credit statements is vital, and so is checking your credit reports regularly. Free credit monitoring from Experian, which alerts you to activity on your Experian credit report and changes in FICO® Score based on Experian data, can automate some of that, and help keep your hard-earned credit safe from criminals.