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How to Prevent Identity Theft Online – and Off

Identity theft can be a costly hassle that affects up to 1 in 3 Americans. Here are 7 common identity theft techniques and related tips to help protect you from each.

By Elliot M. Kass | American Express Credit Intel Freelance Contributor

7 Min Read | August 4, 2021 in Credit Score



Identity theft doesn’t just take place via the Internet. ID thieves use numerous offline methods as well.

There are many ways to protect yourself both online and off, but the most important is to never give out your personal info unless you know exactly whom you’re sharing it with and why.

Taking precautions to safeguard your identity can sometimes feel like a hassle, but it’s worth the effort since the consequences of having your identity stolen can be severe.

People tend to think of identity theft as something that takes place online. Unfortunately, the Internet is not the only place where identity theft occurs: As many as one out of three U.S. adults have experienced some form of identity theft.1 To help prevent it, here are seven of the most common methods con artists use to steal personal information for their own ends – and what you can do to foil them.

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1. Email Phishing

Because email is so ubiquitous, identity thieves often use email “phishing” techniques to try and steal their victims’ personal data. Phishing can take a variety of forms, but in them all thieves essentially rely on using a bogus email to get the intended recipient to either 1) share personal data like a Social Security number or credit card number, or 2) open an attachment so the scammer can embed some spyware onto their system.

Another common ploy is for criminals to use an official looking email that appears to be from a company or government agency that you regularly do business with. The thief’s goal is to try and trick you into visiting a counterfeit website where you will either be asked to complete a form by entering some sensitive information or induced to click on a link that downloads a file onto your computer. The file typically contains malware that swindlers can use to intercept your passwords and personal data – providing an opportunity to steal your identity.

Ways to help prevent identity theft from phishing attacks:

  • Don't provide personal information in an email unless you’re 100% certain who it’s going to and that they absolutely need it. This is especially true for your Social Security number, which you could think of as the key to your kingdom.
  • Don’t open email attachments unless you’re certain they come from a source that you trust.
  • Don’t fill out forms or download files from a web site unless you visited the site directly by typing in the address yourself.


2. Wi-Fi Piracy

Information sent over Wi-Fi can be intercepted. Thieves monitor your signal and then try and guess your password. If they get into your network, they can lift any information you send – including personal information that can be used to steal your identity.

Ways to help prevent identity theft from Wi-Fi interception:

  • To block would-be interceptors, use a firewall and a virtual private network (VPN). These countermeasures are especially important when you’re using a public Wi-Fi network.
  • Use long passwords with lots of capital letters, special characters, and numbers that a thief won’t be able to guess. Change your passwords if a company that you do business with experiences a data breach.
  • Employ antivirus software on your PC, laptop, smartphone, or tablet.


3. Credit Card Skimming

Thieves can place a small, inconspicuous device on ATMs and other credit card processing machines to capture your credit card number and personal identifying information during a transaction. They can then sell the information, use it to open new credit card accounts in your name, or simply charge purchases to your card.

Ways to help prevent identity theft from credit card skimming:

  • Check for a skimming device whenever you swipe your card. A credit card reader that extends out more than usual is a telltale sign, since skimmers are designed to fit over the standard card reader.
  • Cover your hand whenever you type your PIN to prevent tiny hidden cameras from recording it.
  • Check your credit card bills and account statements carefully and often for any suspicious activity.

Did you know? As an added security measure to help protect against fraud, American Express reports a reference number to credit bureaus – instead of your actual account number.


4. Dumpster Diving

In the digital age, dumpster diving may seem a bit quaint. But dumpster divers still sort through trash in order to piece together names and addresses, bank names, account numbers, and other bits of sensitive personal information. Criminals can then use this information to open new accounts in your name or even assume your identity in entirety.

Ways to prevent dumpster divers from stealing your identity:

  • There’s really just this: Shred receipts, credit offers, account statements, and expired credit cards. This can thwart any attempts to use them to steal your personal information.


5. (Snail) Mail Theft

Your mail can be another treasure trove of personal information for would-be ID thieves. They also may be able to take advantage of offers you receive – like an invitation to open a pre-approved credit card. With this method, the identity snatcher opens the account in your name, and you might not find out until you get your first bill.

Ways to prevent identity theft from stolen mail:

  • Secure your mailbox with a lock.
  • Collect your mail daily and place a hold on your mail when you are away from home for more than a couple of days.
  • Be alert for any routine mail – such as a monthly bill – that fails to arrive on time. This could be because someone is selectively lifting pieces of your mail to get your information or has put a “stop” on your mail delivery so they can pick it up at your local post office. If any bills or financial statements are late, don’t hesitate to contact the sender, or go to your post office to check for a bogus stop.


6. Telephone Cons

Some identity thieves specialize in sweet-talking victims into giving out information over the phone. Or they might try to scare you into answering their questions by pretending to be from an official agency, such as the IRS or the police. Alternatively, these con artists often try and talk their way around the safeguards that retailers, banks, and other financial institutions use to verify a caller’s identify. This is called Vishing. They’ve even learned how to sidestep two-step verification by intercepting mobile phone signals to learn their victims’ verification codes. Then they are free to change the address on your accounts, apply for new accounts, or even get a replacement driver’s license – by pretending to be you.

Ways to prevent identity theft from telephone cons:

  • Don’t drop your guard. Never give out personal information over the phone unless you’re certain who it is.
  • Your mobile phone has security features for access, like requiring a passcode or facial recognition. It’s a good idea to use these features.
  • Freeze your credit files with Equifax, Experian, Innovis, TransUnion and the National Consumer Telecommunications and Utilities Exchange. This can be done free of charge and prevents someone from opening a new account in your name.


7. Plain Old Robbery/Burglary

Less imaginative thieves may snatch your purse, grab your wallet, or break into a file cabinet in your home to get what they need to assume your identity.

Ways to prevent identity theft by robbery/burglary:

  • Don't carry your Social Security card in your wallet.
  • Don’t write down your PINs and passwords and then carry them on your person.
  • Don’t keep all of your identifying information in a single place. Distribute it among several different locations.

If all these precautions seem like a lot of effort, consider this: Some suggest it may take more than 33 hours to resolve a case of stolen identity – and a full recovery can take months or even years.2 Other research showed it took an average of six months and 100 to 200 hours of personal time to undo identity fraud.3


The Takeaway

About 33% of Americans have been affected by identity theft, which can cost them many thousands of dollars and take many days or weeks to repair. The safety measures detailed above can go a long way toward ensuring that you don’t become the latest victim of identity theft – either online or off.

Elliot Kass

Elliot Kass is a journalist who has covered global business and technology from New York, London, and San Francisco for more than 30 years.


All Credit Intel content is written by freelance authors and commissioned and paid for by American Express. 

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