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How to Protect Yourself from Identity Theft

Identity theft happens more than you may realize. Know what identity theft is, how it works, and help protect yourself from it with these guidelines.

By Elliot Kass | American Express Credit Intel Freelance Contributor

6 Min Read | May 11, 2020 in Credit

 

At-A-Glance

Identity theft is rampant, with nearly 60 million Americans experiencing it in some form.

There are many different types of identity theft, all of which can result in financial losses and great personal hardship.

The U.S. government recommends a variety of steps to help you protect yourself from identity theft.

Concerned about identify theft? There’s good reason for wanting to protect yourself: Nearly 60 million Americans have experienced some form of this crime, according to an online survey by The Harris Poll.1

 

But here’s a bit of good news from an identity theft statistic: After rising steadily for three years, the number of identity theft victims actually fell by 15%, from 16.7 million to 14.4 million in 2018, the latest year for which reliable figures are available.2 Still, the cost of these crimes continues to rise: $16.8 billion was stolen from ID theft victims in just 2017 alone.3

 

What is Identity Theft?

Identity theft occurs when someone gains unauthorized access to your personal information—such as your name, Social Security Number (SSN) or bank account records. The thief then uses that information to open a credit card account, file for a phony tax refund, rack up medical bills, or commit other crimes in your name. Sadly, this is not an uncommon occurrence: One out of three U.S. adults has been victimized by some form of this criminal activity.4

 

Apart from the financial losses that you may incur, which can be substantial, having your identity stolen can damage your credit, cause emotional distress and require a lot of time and effort to resolve. Many victims report that the fallout from these incidents often lingers for years. But there are several steps you can take to prevent identity theft from happening to you.

 

 

How Identify Theft Works

To know how to protect yourself from identity theft, it helps to understand how the criminals who do it operate. Some of the more common ways include:5

 

Sorting through your trash: This may seem like something out of vintage movie, but dumpster divers are still able to piece together your name and address, the name of your bank, your account numbers, and other bits of information by sorting through your old bills, financial statements, and other discarded items. Then they can then use this information to open new accounts in your name or even assume your identity entirely.

 

Stealing your mail: A thief may be able to garner all sorts of information about you by going through your mail. They may also be able to take advantage of things like pre-approved credit card offers to open an account in your name and then go on a spending spree.

 

Online “phishing”: It’s become commonplace for cyber criminals to try and trick their victims into replying to e-mails or visiting bogus web sites in order to capture information like their Social Security numbers, which they can then use to rob their financial accounts or open a new line of credit.

 

Telephone cons: Retailers, banks and other financial institutions require callers to identify themselves in various ways before discussing their accounts. But identity thieves specialize in talking their way around these safeguards—and can sometimes even intercept your mobile phone calls in order to get your verification codes. Then they are free to fill out account applications, submit change-of-address forms or even get a replacement driver’s license, all in your name.

 

Old-fashioned robbery/burglary: Less imaginative thieves may snatch your purse, lift your wallet, or break into a file cabinet in order to get what they need to assume your identity.

 

Protecting Yourself from Identity Theft

The U.S. government takes identity theft seriously, and offers numerous recommendations to avoid becoming a victim of this widespread crime. These include:6

  • Don't carry your Social Security card in your wallet, and only give out your number when you’re absolutely certain of the person’s legitimacy.
  • Likewise, don't share personal information like your address or birthdate, unless you know the person you’re giving it to and why. Be especially aware of this when using email.
  • Collect your mail daily and place a hold on your mail when you are away from home for more than a couple of days.
  • Missing mail may be a sign that someone is attempting to obtain your personal information. If your bills or financial statements are late, don’t hesitate to contact the sender and go to your post office to find out if anyone has put a hold on your mail.
  • Make use of the security features on your mobile phone, like requiring a passcode for access.
  • Information sent over wi-fi can be intercepted. To prevent this, use a firewall and a virtual private network (VPN). This is especially important when you’re using a public wi-fi network.
  • Various types of malware can intercept your passwords and personal data. To help prevent this, employ anti-virus software on your PC, laptop or tablet.
  • Shred receipts, credit offers, account statements and expired credit cards. This can prevent dumpster divers from stealing your personal information.
  • Use long passwords with lots of caps, special characters, and numbers so a thief won’t be able to guess it. And change your passwords if a company that you do business with experiences a data breach.
  • Freeze your credit files with Equifax, Experian, TransUnion, and the National Consumer Telecommunications and Utilities Exchange. This can be done free of charge. Credit freezes can help prevent someone from applying for a credit account or utility service in your name. For more, read “How to Freeze Your Credit at All 3 Bureaus—For Free.”

 

One last tip: There are numerous private companies that offer identity protection services. Many of them are affordable and have good track records for protecting their clients’ identities. They monitor things like who’s making use of your Social Security number and alert you to any potentially fraudulent activity. They may also provide insurance and help you recover your identity in the event that it does get stolen. For more, read “4 Different Types of Credit Protection You May Need."

 

The Takeaway

Identity theft is a serious crime experienced by tens of millions of Americans. It takes many different forms and the outcome can be devastating. To protect yourself, the U.S. government recommends several steps you can take to protect yourself and help keep you safe from identify theft.

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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