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Identity theft happens when a fraudster uses your name, address, bank account information, credit card details or other types of personal data without your consent. They may open up new accounts in your name or make purchases using your personal details.
It's scary and uncomfortable when someone uncovers and uses your sensitive data, and it can also have real consequences. Your credit may be affected if an identity thief applies for credit, opens new accounts or rents an apartment with your information.
But there's a lot you can do to protect yourself from identity theft, starting with understanding the information that you should go to the greatest lengths to protect. Here's where to start.
Information Thieves Can Use to Steal Your Identity
Identity thieves are always finding new ways to steal consumer data. You can get ahead of them, however, by building awareness of how identity theft happens and knowing your options for keeping your information safe. The following data is what's at risk when identity thieves seek a target.
Name and Address
There's not much a thief can do with only your name and address, which are easy-to-find pieces of information. But they provide a starting point, and with them a criminal can more easily access other important data. For example, they could send you phishing scams via snail mail or search your mailbox for valuable documents that contain additional personal information. They'll need your name and address to perpetrate other crimes, too, like applying for credit in your name.
Social Security Number
Your Social Security number is likely the most sensitive piece of personal information that belongs to you, since so much can be obtained with it. A thief could use your Social Security number to file a tax return with the IRS and get a tax refund; apply for new credit, like loans or a credit card; secure employment or health care; or receive Social Security benefits.
A thief could get access to your Social Security number by stealing your wallet or mail, buying it on the dark web or detecting it when you've entered it on an unsecured website. They could also pretend they're a government or financial institution employee and con you into sharing it.
Scammers may seek to gain access to your checking and savings account numbers, routing numbers, online banking passwords and PINs. With your bank account number and other information, such as your password, PIN or Social Security number, a thief could take over your account and make withdrawals or open new accounts in your name.
Your phone number is a portal to a lot of other valuable personal information. A thief could put you at risk of a phishing scam by texting or calling your cellphone. Or they can search the web for more data, including your address and public records, using your number. They may also send you a link that, if opened, will download malware to your device and open you up to identity theft.
Strong passwords are essential, since scammers can do significant damage if they guess yours based on your personal data. It's also possible for a criminal to get your password through another company's data breach, and if you reuse that same password elsewhere, they'll have more entry points for potential identity theft.
If you don't have multifactor authentication enabled on your phone or online accounts, a thief can use your password and your email address or username to sign into your online banking or credit card portal, scan your email inbox for additional data and more.
Credit Card Information
Credit card fraud can happen if your card is stolen, a criminal gets your account number via a card reader that's been tampered with or if a thief knows your account number and security code via a security breach or public Wi-Fi hacking. Most commonly, a thief will make purchases you didn't authorize, racking up debt and potentially affecting your credit without your knowledge.
How to Protect Your Personal Information
There are many ways a fraudster can steal your information, but there are just as many ways for you to protect it. Here are your best bets:
- Clear your mailbox. Try not to leave communications from your financial institutions or the government in your mailbox for too long to prevent a thief from grabbing them. Be wary of potential fraudulent mail promising sweepstakes or lottery winnings or containing fake tax notices. Whenever possible, sign up for electronic notices rather than paper ones to keep sensitive information out of your mailbox.
- Consider a post office box. You may consider setting up a post office box where you can receive particularly sensitive documents. That prevents fraudsters from accessing your mail and stealing additional data from you, and it also means you can avoid giving out your personal address for all correspondence.
- Stay vigilant. Stay watchful when you're entering your PIN at an ATM and check the machine for signs it's been altered or configured with a device that could capture your banking information.
- Protect your browsing. Use a virtual private network (VPN) when you're accessing the internet in a public space, which can help prevent thieves from hacking into your wireless network and stealing your passwords.
- Leave important information at home. Don't regularly carry your Social Security card in your wallet, and avoid giving out your Social Security number if you can. If you're asked to enter it online, don't do so on an unsecured or public network, and use a VPN.
- Check your credit report. Regularly review your credit reports for suspicious activity. Consider placing a free security freeze on your credit to prevent thieves from setting up accounts in your name.
- Know the risky places. Understand where your personal information may be maliciously stored and shared online. Experian offers a free one-time dark web scan and personal privacy scan, plus additional paid IdentityWorks℠ products for ongoing dark web monitoring.
What to Do if Your Identity Is Stolen
Call each company where your accounts were compromised and explain the situation, then change your associated passwords and PINs.
You can report the identity theft to the Federal Trade Commission, which will then provide you with a personalized recovery plan. Access your credit reports from each of the credit bureaus to assess what else may have happened to your accounts, and set up a fraud alert with one of the bureaus (which must then notify the other two to do the same).
While identity theft is an experience that can be stressful and frightening, there's lots of victim assistance available—and many opportunities to bring your credit and finances back under your control.