Identity theft occurs when someone uses another individual’s personal or financial information without their permission, typically for economic gain. The stolen information can include details such as their name, date of birth, Social Security number, address, credit card numbers, financial account information, passwords, and other sensitive data. Reports of identity theft have grown exponentially in the past few years, with over 1.1 million reports filed through the Federal Trade Commission’s website in 2022.
The information used to commit identity theft can be obtained through stolen mail, data breaches, computer viruses, a lost or stolen wallet, and even during transactions––with a fraudster seeing and recording card numbers or PINs, or if there is a skimmer attached to a card reader. Becoming a victim of identity theft can lead to financial loss, a damaged credit score, legal troubles, emotional distress, a loss of reputation, and more. To minimize the risk of falling victim to identity theft, people should consider doing the following:
While fraudsters are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their ways of stealing personal information, the tried-and-true method of physical theft is easy to rely on. Identity thieves can do a lot of financial harm with a lost or stolen wallet, mail, or documents people throw away. To limit the chances of identity theft, people should safeguard important documents at home, such as their Social Security card, birth certificate, passport, financial account statements, and tax documents. These documents should be stored in a locked safe. If someone will be throwing away any documents with their personal information on them, they should tear them up or shred them beforehand. Sensitive materials such as account statements, credit applications or offers, insurance forms, medical statements, checks, and utility bills can be a goldmine for thieves if found in the trash.
Additionally, people should consider collecting their mail daily. If an identity thief is willing to steal sensitive data out of the garbage, it’s likely they’re willing to steal sensitive data out of a mailbox. Consider signing up for the U.S. Postal Service’s Informed Delivery, which will notify people with a digital preview of the items being delivered––that way they’ll know if something is missing. If someone knows they’re going to be away from home for a while, they should sign up for the U.S. Postal Service’s Hold Mail service. By opting to use this tool, the USPS will safely hold their mail at their local Post Office until they return home, for up to 30 days.
People should consider enabling two-factor authentication on all of their accounts. By adding two-factor authentication, accounts can only be accessed after entering the username and password, then by completing another prompt––such as entering a code the user receives via text or email, or by scanning their fingerprint. Without having access to the latter, a fraudster can’t access their accounts.
Social media platforms are treasure troves for identity thieves. Not only is it common for someone to share their full name and date of birth on social media, but people are often sharing updates on their whereabouts and interacting with family members. Identity thieves can use this public information to guess common security questions or passwords.
It’s important that people take the time to regularly review their credit card and financial account statements. If a fraudster somehow ends up with their credit card number or account information, they could start making charges. A common tactic is to make small charges at first to see if they can get away with it. After that, they may start increasing the charge amounts or just continue to tally up small purchases––hoping that the victim never notices. If someone notices something suspicious when reviewing a statement, they should call their financial institution or credit card provider right away. They will walk them through the steps needed to lessen or eliminate the impact of identity theft.
People should also monitor their credit report. By going to annualcreditreport.com, individuals can get a free report every 12 months from each major credit bureau—Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Checking reports can show people where their credit stands, ensure their credit information is accurate, allow them to respond to changes quickly, and give them insight on how it can be improved. If someone looks at their report and suspects they’ve been a victim of identity theft, they can report the theft through IdentityTheft.gov and get a recovery plan.
When someone freezes their credit, nobody (not even themselves) can open an account, apply for a loan, or get a new credit card in their name. To freeze their credit, people must contact each of the three main credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. There are online, mail-in, or telephone options for freezing credit. It’s free, it has no impact on credit scores, and people can unfreeze their credit at any time. If someone isn’t actively shopping for a credit card or loan, freezing their credit provides good protection against identity theft.
Preventing identity theft is vital for protecting individual rights, privacy, and financial well-being, and applying the tips outlined above can help prevent people from falling victim.
Article by Jake Holmes from Maine Credit Union League
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