Fact: In 2017, 16.7 million Americans suffered from identity theft.
That’s an eight percent increase from 2016, according to a study by Javelin Strategy & Research. And even with the attention these thieves have been receiving by the government and businesses across the country, they still stole $16.8 billion. Consumers often missed early signs of identity theft, leading to higher losses.
“2017 was a runaway year for fraudsters, and with the amount of valid information they have on consumers, their attacks are just getting more complex,” says Al Pascual, senior vice president, research director, and head of fraud & security, Javelin Strategy & Research. “Fraudsters are growing more sophisticated in response to industry’s efforts to implement better security.”
Now that hackers can breach even the most cutting-edge security methods, monitoring your own personal information and spotting identity theft at the earliest stages is essential.
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How to Spot Identity Theft
Spotting the warning signs of identity theft quickly can help you prevent drastic financial damages. And these damages go beyond emptying your checking accounts. They include buying goods and services on your credit card, receiving medical treatment through your health insurance, creating a new passport using your name, and opening new credit card accounts.
Look for these signs of identity theft:
Withdrawals from your bank account that you didn’t make:
If you notice unauthorized withdrawals or transactions from your bank account, it indicates that someone has gained access to your account information, potentially through identity theft. This can result in financial losses and potential difficulties in recovering the stolen funds.
Missing bills or other mail:
If you stop receiving bills or other mail that you typically receive, it could indicate that an identity thief has changed your mailing address or redirected your mail to gain access to sensitive information, such as financial statements or account statements.
Collectors calling you about debts that aren’t yours:
If debt collectors contact you about debts that you don’t recognize or owe, it suggests that someone may have used your identity to incur debts fraudulently. This can negatively impact your credit history and make it challenging to resolve false debts.
Unfamiliar accounts or charges on your credit report:
If you discover unfamiliar accounts or charges on your credit report, it indicates that someone has used your personal information to open new credit accounts or make fraudulent charges. This can harm your credit score and make it difficult to obtain credit in the future.
You get notified that your personal information was stolen during a data breach at a company where you do business or have an account:
If you receive a notification that your personal information was compromised in a data breach at a company you have a relationship with, it means that unauthorized individuals may have gained access to your sensitive data. This can increase the risk of identity theft and other fraudulent activities.
You’re turned down for credit or offered a credit line at a higher interest rate:
If you are denied credit or offered credit at unfavorable terms, such as a higher interest rate, it could be a sign of identity theft. When identity thieves use your personal information to engage in fraudulent activities, it can negatively impact your credit history and make lenders perceive you as a higher risk.
A stranger is trying to collect unemployment benefits in your name:
If you receive notifications or inquiries about unemployment benefits that you didn’t apply for, it suggests that someone may be fraudulently claiming unemployment benefits using your identity. This can disrupt your financial stability and potentially affect your eligibility for legitimate benefits.
Your credit score is suddenly rising for no apparent reason:
While a sudden increase in your credit score may seem positive, it could also be a sign of identity theft. Identity thieves sometimes make timely payments on fraudulent accounts to boost your credit score temporarily. Monitoring your credit report regularly is crucial to identify any suspicious activity.
You identify small charges on your credit card (known as “test charges”) that you didn’t make:
Identity thieves often make small test charges on your credit card to verify if the card is active and the information is correct. If you notice unfamiliar small charges, it may indicate that your card details have been compromised and could be used for larger fraudulent transactions.
You receive a much larger amount of solicitations for “big-ticket” items:
If you suddenly start receiving an excessive number of solicitations, such as offers for expensive products or services, it could indicate that your personal information has been accessed or sold on the black market. Identity thieves often sell personal data to marketers, resulting in an influx of targeted advertisements.
Alerts of suspicious activity:
When you receive an email or text alert about a suspicious transaction, don’t ignore it. At the same time, don’t just start clicking on links or attachments in the copy right away, since the “alert” also could be a ploy to gain access to your sensitive, personal information for identity theft purposes. If the alert came from your credit card company or bank, call the customer service number listed on the issuer’s or bank’s website or verify that the number you’re instructed to call is a valid number for the credit card issuer or bank. If the alert is valid, contact the creditor immediately to cancel the credit card and get a new card issued.
Q:What are the warning signs of medical identity theft?
Read your medical and insurance statements regularly. Also, analyze the Explanation of Benefits statement or Medicare Summary Notice that your health plan sends you after treatment. You want to make certain the name of the provider, the date of service, and the service provided correspond with the care you’ve received. If you see a mistake, contact your health plan and report the problem.
Medical charges for services you didn’t receive:
If you receive bills or notices for medical services or treatments that you didn’t undergo, it suggests that someone has used your identity to obtain medical care fraudulently. This can lead to financial losses and potential damage to your medical records.
A denied health insurance claim because records show you’ve reached your benefits limit:
If you are denied health insurance claims based on reaching your benefits limit, despite not having done so, it could be an indication of identity theft. Someone might be using your health insurance information to fraudulently receive medical services.
A health plan won’t cover you because your medical records show a condition you don’t have:
If your health plan denies coverage or refuses to insure you based on medical records that show a condition you don’t have, it suggests that someone has tampered with your medical information. This can have serious implications for your health coverage and future medical treatments.
Q:Are there any early warning signs of tax identity theft?
- Receiving a notice from the IRS that you have income from an employer you don’t work for
- Notification that tax return was already filed when it wasn’t.
- You received a tax transcript that you didn’t request or a tax refund that you didn’t request.
- If you owe additional taxes or have collection actions against you for a year you did not file a tax return.
- You have unpaid taxes in your underage child’s name because identity thieves stole your child’s Social Security number to file falsified tax returns.
Notice from the IRS that you have income from an employer you don’t work for, or that your tax return was already filed when it wasn’t:
If you receive notifications from the IRS indicating that you have income from an employer you don’t recognize or that your tax return has already been filed when it hasn’t, it suggests that someone has used your identity to commit tax fraud. This can result in financial complications and potential legal issues.
Receiving a tax transcript that you didn’t request:
If you receive a tax transcript from the IRS that you didn’t request, it could indicate that someone is attempting to access your tax information fraudulently. This can be a precursor to identity theft or tax-related fraud.
You receive a tax refund that you didn’t request:
If you receive a tax refund that you didn’t request or expect, it suggests that someone has filed a fraudulent tax return using your identity to claim a refund. This can lead to complications with your legitimate tax filing and delays in receiving your rightful refund.
It’s important to note that experiencing one or more of these signs doesn’t necessarily mean you are a victim of identity theft, but they should be taken seriously and investigated further. If you notice any suspicious activity or signs of identity theft, it’s crucial to take prompt action, such as contacting the relevant institutions, monitoring your accounts, and reporting the incident to the appropriate authorities.
What to do if I’m a victim of identity theft
Use the general checklist below if you believe a thief compromised your personal information. Using the free letters and reports offered on the IdentityTheft.gov website makes the process much easier. They also offer comprehensive advice and other resources that will help you through this difficult time.
|Step||Action Item #1||Action Item #2||Action Item #3|
|Contact companies where fraud occurred.||Call the fraud department of each company||Close or freeze the accounts||Change passwords, logins and PINS for the accounts|
|Place a fraud report and get your credit reports||Contact one of three credit bureaus: Experian.com, TransUnion.com, Equifax.com||Get your free credit reports from the three bureaus||Review your reports and identify any fraudulent accounts and transactions|
|Report identity theft to FTC at: IdentityTheft.gov||Create an account on their website||Go through each recovery step on account and create a plan and Identity Theft Report||Update your recovery plan, and track your progress|
|Correct your credit report||Write to each credit report bureau and include a copy of your Identity Theft Report and proof of your identity||Point out the fraudulent information on your report||Ask them to block that information|
|Report to your local police department||Bring a copy of your Identity Theft Report, ID, proof of address and any other proof of theft||File the report at your local police station||Ask for a copy of your filed report|
Ways to Prevent Identity Theft
Security experts from the Javelin Strategy & Research study, recommend certain steps that consumers should adopt as they navigate through the world. They believe these safeguards will, at minimum, help protect your identity. The steps include:
- “Two-factor authentication.” This approach amps up your security and demands additional action besides simply putting in a username and password to reach your account.
- Securing online and mobile devices by encrypting data, not using public Wi-Fi, installing anti-malware, and utilizing a virtual private network (VPN).
- Consider a credit report freeze, especially if you’re not opening new accounts. This will stop any fraudster from opening an account in your name.
- Signing up for account alerts. Some financial service providers, such as credit card companies, give you the choice to receive notifications when they suspect questionable activity.
1. Review credit reports regularly
Monitoring your credit report is essential to protecting yourself from identity theft. That’s because if you spot discrepancies such as unfamiliar credit accounts under your name, you can take steps right away – placing a fraud alert or credit freeze on your credit, for example – to resolve the issue and stop others from opening more fraudulent credit accounts in your name.
You can order one copy of your credit report a year from Annualcreditreport.com. But there are additional, often free, ways to monitor your credit as well. For example, when you sign up with Credit Karma, you can access your credit score and report(s) anytime.
2. Password-protect devices
Is signing in with a password on your smartphone too much trouble, so you just don’t bother with this security measure? If so, you’re leaving yourself open to identity theft if your phone is lost, stolen or even just accessible to a random dishonest person.
“Not having a password on your smartphone or tablet is akin to leaving your home with the door wide open,” according to major credit bureau Experian. “If the device falls into the wrong hands, your email, financial accounts and other private data stored on the phone will be easily accessible.”
3. Don’t get hooked by phishing
Identity thieves often use “phishing,” a cyberattack that tricks you into divulging sensitive, personal information such as passwords, usernames, account numbers or Social Security numbers. Any information you supply via a phishing email or text can then be used to steal your identity and/or fraudulently take out credit under your name.
Red flags for phishing emails or texts include a generic greeting such as “Dear account holder” instead of your name and urgent requests that require immediate action and/or threats to close or freeze your account unless you click on a link or attachment in the email.
4. Use a password manager
It’s tempting to use the same password for several, or even all, of your accounts to avoid constantly looking up passwords. However, using the same password for all your bank, credit card and other financial accounts is a risky move that can make you an easy target for identity thieves.
To eliminate this identity theft risk, you can store all your passwords securely by using a password manager such as LastPass or 1Password. A password manager app lets you securely store your passwords so that you don’t have to log in with your login credentials each time you visit a website or account.
5. Hang up on scammers
Identity thieves love to pose as government agencies and banks. But no bank is going to call and ask for your checking account or debit card number. And the same goes for anyone claiming to be with the Social Security Administration who threatens to “cancel” your Social Security number if you don’t call back the number on the robocall message to “verify” your Social Security number.
If you receive a message or call from a bank or government agency, always contact the entity directly – using only the contact information on its official website – to make sure a request for sensitive, personal information is legitimate.
There are a few other things you can also do. For example:
- Don’t carry your social security card with you
- Don’t answer unsolicited requests for your personal information online, by phone or through the mail
- Shred your account statements and expired credit cards
- Store all sensitive information in a safe place such as a safe deposit box at your local bank
Staying vigilant and avoiding all suspicious emails, phone calls, and other requests for personal information, and boosting your online security should become the new norm for you. After all, it doesn’t look like identity theft will be going away any time soon.
Connect with a certified credit counselor to review your options if you’ve been a victim of identity theft.
Article last modified on June 13, 2023. Published by Debt.com, LLC