Social media scams and pandemic assistance thefts top the list of 2021 identity crimes.

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Last year was a record year for identity crimes involving theft, compromise or misuse, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC), an identity theft resource for consumers, businesses, government and identity theft victims.

In 2021, the ITRC received nearly 15,000 reports of identity crimes, the highest number since the nonprofit organization’s founding in 1999, according to the ITRC’s new report “2021 Trends in Identity.” The COVID pandemic fueled the fire of many identity scams, especially those involving unemployment, other government benefits and fake government grants.

With identity crimes on the rise, it’s wise to bone up on what’s trending when it comes to identity theft and the ploys criminals use to steal information they can use for identity theft purposes.

Here’s the rundown on trending identity theft schemes and scams to avoid.

Social media scams

2021 showed a whopping 1,044 percent increase in social media scams, according to the ITRC report. Most frequently, scammers hijacked the victims’ Instagram, Facebook and other social media accounts. With these scams, the criminals sent direct messages containing links.

Once the user clicked on the link, they were typically directed to a site asking for personally identifiable information such as social media account passwords. Then scammers used their social media log-in information, to reset the password, locking out the victim and hijacking the account for their own purposes.

Find out: Protect Yourself Against Social Media Identity Theft

Theft of Pandemic-related assistance

Pandemic-related payments such as stimulus payments and Child Tax Credit payments were the items most often reported stolen in 2021, according to the ITRC report. Many people waiting on payments reported the payments as most likely stolen through the mail.

Others reported payments stolen through an unauthorized takeover at their bank or the IRS. With many reports, the culprit behind the account takeover was a spouse, former spouse or another family member.

Find out: Different Types of Identity Theft that Threaten Your Personal Data

Misuse of credentials to nab government benefits

Criminals using victims’ stolen credentials to open, access or take over accounts for government benefits like unemployment insurance, Small Business Administration and Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans was the highest reported misuse of credentials, according to the report.

Reports of misused credentials to open, take over or access unemployment benefits increased in 2021 by 88 percent. Fraudulent taxes filed with the IRS increased by 32 percent.

Find out: Don’t Be Fooled by These 6 Different Government Imposter Scams

Opening of fraudulent accounts on the rise

In 2021, identity thieves shifted to fraudulently opening new financial accounts in a victim’s name more often than gaining access to accounts that already existed, according to the ITRC report.

Once the bank account was opened, thieves deposited stolen checks or fraudulently obtained money from the victim’s pandemic-related assistance or government benefits. Then they transferred the money to another account.

“This trend is disturbing because existing account takeover is more easily detected by victims and easier to dispute than new account fraud, particularly new account fraud involving bank accounts,” states the report.

Find out: Take These 5 Steps to Protect Yourself From Financial Fraud

3 tips for avoiding identity theft

Now that you know which identity theft crimes are on the rise, take these three steps to protect yourself from identity crimes.

1. Monitor your credit report

Newly opened accounts or unusual credit card activity, including past-due payments on accounts you never use, will appear on your credit report. These should alert you to possible identity theft. That’s why you should review your credit report at least a couple of times a year, or even every few months.

To get started, order a free copy of your credit report from AnnualCreditReport.com. Watch for and report any unfamiliar accounts to the creditor shown and the credit bureau that issued the credit report.

2. Don’t give out personally identifiable information

Unless you’re absolutely sure you’re talking with a legitimate entity or agency — one where you called the customer service number shown on the website ending with “.gov,” for example — don’t hand over your Social Security number, driver’s license information, passwords of other sensitive personal information that could be used for identity theft purposes.

3. Freeze or place a fraud alert on your credit

To keep new credit accounts from being opened under your name, you can place a free credit freeze on your credit with all three of the three major credit bureaus: Equifax, TransUnion and Experian.

A credit freeze prevents lenders from checking your credit report if someone applies for credit in your name. Keep in mind the freeze applies to your own credit applications, too. But you can also “unfreeze” your credit at any time.

If you’ve been a victim of identity theft, you can place a temporary or extended “fraud alert” on your credit with one of the three major credit bureaus. That bureau will notify the other two. With a fraud alert, potential creditors receive a message that they must verify your identity before processing a credit application under your name.

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About the Author

Deb Hipp

Deb Hipp

Deb Hipp is a full-time freelance writer based in Kansas City, Mo. Deb went from being unable to get approved for a credit card or loan 20 years ago to having excellent credit today and becoming a homeowner. Deb learned her lessons about money the hard way. Now she wants to share them to help you pay down debt, fix your credit and quit being broke all the time. Deb's personal finance and credit articles have been published at Credit Karma and The Huffington Post.

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