Identity theft is a type of crime where a person uses someone else’s personally identifiable information (PII) in a fraudulent or deceptive way, usually for financial gain.
These thefts have always been an issue, but never as prevalent as they are today.
During the pandemic, the quantity of unemployment benefits and stimulus checks increased and more transactions moved online. This created a fertile ground for identity thefts to bloom. In fact, identity thefts increased a whopping 29.4% in 2020 according to the Federal Trade Commission. Data brokers like Whitepages standard have taken full advantage to track and sell your information.
As the numbers are expected to just keep on rising, it’s important to learn how to protect yourself from identity theft.
Firstly, it’s important to understand some of the most common forms of identity theft, so you then understand how to better protect yourself from these risks.
Credit identity theft
This is when a criminal applies for a new credit line using your information. Resolving this type of identity theft may take several months in order to dispute the thieves’ activities, to restore your credit rating, to close compromised bank accounts and open new ones.
Child identity theft
This happens when a child’s identity is stolen by a criminal to apply for credit in their name. Children are a common target because the crimes are often not discovered until the victim applies for their first loans or credit. The aftermath can take a long time, especially if the theft happened a long time ago.
Taxpayer identity theft
This happens when criminals get a hold of your Social Security Number to file a tax return and steal your tax refund or tax credit.
Medical identity theft
Medical identity theft happens when someone uses your identity to use health care services. It can be particularly dangerous because the inaccurate information on your medical records may impact doctors’ decision-making during an emergency.
Many people use the same password across all their online accounts. And while it becomes very difficult to remember dozens of different passwords, there are plenty of secure password manager tools you can use to manage this.
If you always use the same password, all a fraudster needs to do is get access to this from one compromised account, and they can then access all your accounts. Always use different passwords and make sure they’re not easy to guess.
The same goes with your devices. If you thought it’s convenient not to have a passcode on your phone – think again.
Additionally, be smart with your security questions. Don’t use answers that can be easily found online such as your pet’s name or the school you went to.
2. Don’t click on any suspicious links
Always be cautious of emails coming from your bank or other institution that asks you to click on a link, download an attachment or share sensitive personal information online.
Because most institutions would never ask you to do this. It’s more likely that you’re being targeted by a phishing attack– a fraudulent email disguised as a reputable source (such as your bank) that attempts to get you to handover information so they can steal it.
Scammers will attempt to steal your details by setting up a fraudulent copy of your bank’s (or other trusted institution’s) website, which the link will lead to. Also, make sure you never open any attachments (unless you know exactly what they are), as scammers may try to install malware on your computer and use it to steal your identity.
It’s best to treat every email with caution. Pay close attention to the sender’s email address, if it’s different to the web address of the company it’s purporting to be from, then it’s most likely a scam. Other giveaways are spelling and grammar errors in the email, and unusual phrasing which sounds like it was written by a non-English native speaker.
3. Hang up all suspicious calls immediately
Phishing attacks and other scams can also happen via phone. If you notice anything suspicious, make sure you hang up the call immediately and report the scam phone number.
To get more information about preventing and reporting scam and spam phone calls, check out our How To Report Spam Calls guide.
4. Review your credit card and bank statements frequently
Learning how to protect yourself from identity theft effectively is all about alertness and attention to detail.
You should always check your credit card and bank statements for any charges that you don’t recognize. Even the small ones! Criminals often start with small charges to test if a fraudulent charge will go through.
You can also set up an alert as a reminder. Most financial institutions provide a service where they send you an email, SMS or notification every time transactions are made.
5. Check your credit reports regularly
All major credit bureaus in the US (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) are legally obligated to provide you a free credit report every year. You can request the report easily from annualcreditreport.com.
This is how you do it:
1. Fill out a form to request your credit reports. This is what the form looks like.
2. Request credit reports from Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.
3. Verify your identity by answering questions. The questions are difficult on purpose and you may need your credit records to answer them.
4. Review your reports online.
Checking your credit reports is a good way to spot any discrepancies, address them quickly and prevent identity theft.
6. Protect your personal documents
Never put bank statements and other sensitive documents in the trash. Once they leave your house, they can fall into the hands of anyone.
The solution is simple: a paper shredder. Just shred all papers that might have your sensitive personal information. Especially any documents that have your Social Security Number need to be always destroyed properly or kept somewhere safe.
Another place where your personal documents might get stolen is your mailbox. Luckily, the solution for that is also simple: locking your mailbox. If you’re leaving town for a while, you can place a hold on your mail or ask a friend to regularly collect your mail for you.
7. Freeze your credit
A credit freeze is a good way to prevent identity theft because it blocks access to your credit reports.
If someone tries to apply for credit using your personal information, the institutions are not able to do the required background check and it’s likely that the application won’t get approved.
However, if you want to apply for credit yourself, you can easily unfreeze the credit whenever you need to. Freezing your credit is free and only takes 15 minutes of your time.
Always be wary when using public Wi-Fi. Sometimes these connections aren’t secure and your personal information can be compromised.
However, it doesn’t mean you should never use it. Here’s how to protect yourself from identity theft when using public wi-fi:
Make sure you have extensive firewall settings
Disable file sharing
Use a virtual private network (VPN)
Only navigate on SSL secured websites
A firewall is a computer software that helps you protect your network by filtering traffic and blocking outsiders from gaining access to your private data.
You can use a built-in firewall on your computer or invest in third-party software. No matter which you use, it’s good practice to change the settings to the most secure options whenever you’re using public Wi-Fi.
Manage your firewall settings on Mac:
>Click the Apple menu on your top left corner
>Security & Privacy
>Turn On Firewall (If not activated already)
>Unlock the preference panel if you see a lock on the bottom left
>Block all incoming connections
Manage your firewall settings on PC:
>Open the Control Panel.
>System and Security >Windows Firewall
>Turn Windows Firewall On
>Block all incoming firewall connections
Disable file sharing
Disabling file sharing should happen automatically when you block all incoming connections with a firewall. However, it doesn’t hurt to double-check. It’s also a solid better-than-nothing option for those who don’t want to use a firewall.
How to disable file sharing on Mac:
>Click the Apple menu on your top left corner
>Make sure all the boxes are unticked on the left column.
How to disable file sharing on Mac:
>Network and Internet
>Change Advanced Sharing Options (on the right)
>Open Guest or Public section
>Click the radio buttons next to “Turn off network discovery”
>Turn off file and printer sharing
Virtual Private Network (VPN)
A VPN connection establishes a secure connection between your device and the internet. It protects you from external attacks and means that people using the same public Wi-Fi network as you can’t intercept your data.
SSL secured websites
To know that a website is secured, you need to make sure you’re navigating only on sites that start with https instead of http. This should also be indicated by a lock icon next to the web address in your browser’s search bar.
9. Install antivirus software
Since malware is often used to steal personal information from a person’s computer, an easy way to protect yourself from this threat is to invest in antivirus software.
Antivirus software prevents scans, detects, and deletes viruses from your computer. There are plenty of free options to choose from. However, as per the above point regarding free VPNs, do your research first to understand the limitations and vulnerabilities of free antivirus software versus paid software.
10. Remove your personal information from the internet
This is arguably the most important step of all.
While many of the above steps focus on making it harder for scammers to steal personal identifiable information (PII) from you, the fact is that there is probably a huge amount of your personal information available to buy online.
So no matter what you do to prevent scammers stealing data from you, they may still be able to acquire your data online.
Companies called data brokers collect your personal information by crawling the web. Their goal is to gather as much information about you as possible and then sell it on to other companies. While data brokers aren’t illegal, once they hand over your data it can easily get into the wrong hands.
Fortunately, all data brokers are required to delete personal data if requested to do so. There are two ways to do this:
Do it yourself
You can do it yourself, by following our free data broker opt-out guides. However, there are dozens of brokers to work through. What’s more, this isn’t a one-and-done activity. Data brokers are constantly adding new data, so you need to regularly remove any new data that’s been added. And you then need to multiply all that effort for each of your family members.
Get us to do it for you
Here at DeleteMe, we’re the experts at removing your personal data from the internet. We’ve completed over 29 million data broker opt-out removals since 2010 on behalf of our customers.
As soon as you sign up with us, our privacy experts get to work scrubbing your personal data from all data broker platforms and other online sources of PII. And once your data is removed, scammers can no longer buy your personal data to then harass you with nuisance calls.
If you suspect that your identity might have been stolen, these are the warning signs you need to look out for.
Household bills are missing from the mail.
You’ve been rejected for credit but have a solid credit history
You receive an invoice for a purchase you don’t recognize
You’re getting notified of overdue payments for credit accounts you don’t own.
Your financial accounts show charges you don’t recognize
You received a rejection notice from the IRS due to a duplicate return
Your medical bill doesn’t add up, or your medical claim is denied
If you notice any of these warning signs, make sure to address them quickly with the respective bureau or organization and get to the bottom of any discrepancies immediately.
The earlier you are able to spot identity theft, the less work there will be trying to resolve everything afterward.
Reporting identity theft
Once you have proof of identity theft, you must report it immediately to the The Federal Trade Commission, your local law enforcement, and other entities that the theft is related to.
Reporting to the FTC
The FTC is a government agency that is responsible for protecting consumers and therefore the place to report any fraud related crimes. You can report identity theft to the FTC online at IdentityTheft.gov or call 1-877-438-4338.
It’s recommended to fill out the form online because that way, you’ll receive an identity theft report. The report helps you prove that your identity has been stolen, in case companies are chasing after you due to unpaid bills, for example.
By creating a profile on identitytheft.gov you also get access to other useful resources such as pre-written letters that you can send to creditors and a recovery plan to guide you through the necessary steps to clear your name.
Reporting to local law enforcement
Reporting identity theft to the police is not always necessary but is usually a good idea. However, if you know the person who stole your identity or someone used your name in an interaction with the police, then you should report the theft to your local law enforcement.
Sometimes creditors may also require you to provide a police report in order to prove that your identity has been stolen.
Reporting to other institutions
Depending on the type of identity theft that you’ve become a victim of, you may need to report it to other agencies as well. Here are some examples:
Identity theft is, unfortunately, becoming ever more common. Therefore, everyone should take sensible precautions to ensure their data doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.
Simple actions such as removing your information from data brokers, taking good care of your sensitive information, being cautious with phishing attempts, freezing your credit, and checking the reports regularly can significantly decrease your chances to have your identity stolen.