What is Identity Theft?
Identity theft is when you or a member of your family’s personal information is used by someone else—to steal from you by accessing your financial or health accounts or opening a new account in your name, by making fraudulent purchases with your credit card, or by tricking the IRS into mailing them your refund check. Or even to hide from the law by trying to impersonate you.
What can happen? Identity thieves can wipe out your accounts, put you in credit card debt, deplete your health insurance, or put you on the wrong side of the law.
Signs you may be a victim of Identity Theft
- Your bank statement includes withdrawals you haven’t made
- Bills and other mail you should be getting no longer arrive
- Your checks are refused
- You get calls from collectors about debts that aren’t yours
- Your credit report shows accounts you haven’t opened or charges you haven’t made
- You get bills from medical providers for services you’ve never received
- You learn of a data breach at a firm that has your detailed personal information—for example, a credit bureau or a health insurance company
Think you may already be a victim?
If your wallet, Social Security number, or other personal information is lost or stolen, there are steps you can take to help protect yourself from identity theft.
Visit www.IdentityTheft.gov, the federal government’s one-stop resource to help you report and recover from identity theft. You can also visit our article Dealing with Identity Theft.
How to Protect Your Identity
The best way to avoid becoming a victim of identity theft is to protect your personal information. Keep your information in a safe place, and safely discard it. And, in today’s digital environments, make sure your computers and other devices are protected from viruses and hacking.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recommends taking these steps:
- Regularly check your credit card and bank statements for any unexplainable activity.
- Write down the dates you normally receive bills—utilities, loans and mortgages, credit cards, and so on. If you don’t get bills when you should, investigate.
- Scan your health insurance statements for anything you don’t recall claiming.
- Always shred documents with personal or financial information. Stores such as UPS may do this on a per-pound basis, if you’re comfortable with that.
- Order your free annual credit reports from the three credit reporting agencies and review them.
- Carry on your person only what you absolutely need: license and credit/debit cards. Leave other identification—health insurance or Medicare cards, Social Security cards, and so on—at home in a safe place.
Other steps you might want to take include:
- Shredding anything that identity thieves might use against you—receipts for payment using credit/debit cards, financial and medical statements and bills, cleared checks, even credit offers and expired charge cards
- Making sure thieves don’t steal your mail—using a U.S. Postal Service collection box or going to a post office to mail your letters, getting the mail from your mailbox soon after it’s delivered, holding your mail if you’ll be gone even for a few days, and picking up new bank checks at your bank rather than having them mailed. You can also look into getting a secure, lockable mailbox.
Share Your Information Safely
The golden rule for providing information online or by phone is, know who you’re giving it to. That means:
- Provide it only if you have initiated contact and you know without a doubt who you’re giving it to.
- If you’ve been contacted—by phone, by email, or on a website—don’t give it out. Instead, offer to call them back at a number you know is legitimate, not a number they give to you.
- Don’t click on anything you’re unsure of—especially if it’s financial, medical, or governmental (and that even includes the IRS! Read more here about IRS imposter scams).
What About My Social Security Number?
- Some entities have legitimate reasons to request your Social Security number—your employer, financial institutions, medical insurers, the IRS. For others, the FTC recommends you ask if your SSN is really needed and whether you can use a different identifier. Be just as careful about your kids’ Social Security numbers. Ask the same question, and find out how their SSNs will be used and protected.
Secure Your Online Information
- Use only secure sites
- Before you provide personal information on any website, make sure it’s a secure site. Look for the small lock icon in the URL address bar, signifying that the site is encrypted and secures any data you provide. When in doubt, don’t enter your information.
- Strengthen your passwords
- Are your passwords strong enough? That’s passwords. Use a different password for every site or app that requires one. If one password gets stolen, the thief can’t get into everything you have online.
- Strong passwords don’t have to be complicated. But they shouldn’t be something that someone who knows a little bit about you could easily guess.
- According to Google, the best passwords include:
- Song lyrics
- Brief passages from a novel or poem
- Movie quotes
- Any series of meaningful words
Convert the words into a password by using the first letter of each word, alternating between upper and lower case, and creatively using letters, numbers, or symbols to replace letters or syllables.
Example: Turn the phrase, “May the force be with you!” into "MAt4cBwU!"
- Don’t overshare
- Think twice about what you share on social media sites. When it comes to those challenge questions or password hints you may provide on financial, insurance, and other websites, an identity thief could use your social media content to figure out the clues and successfully break into those accounts. That obviously also goes for sharing basic information like your full name, address, and phone numbers.
- Consider security software
- There are a number of anti-virus, anti-spy, and firewall software programs for MS Windows® computers. Macs and the Mac operating system are still less prone to these issues. Either way, speak to a technician you trust about what might be right for you. And on an ongoing basis, install those operating system updates regularly—they can contain security patches you’ll want to have.
- Don’t get phished
- Phishing emails are intended to trick you into opening files, clicking on links, or downloading programs that can extract passwords and other personal information. They run from the fairly obvious to emails that look completely legitimate. Refer to the golden rule about not sharing personal information via email, above.
- Watch it with wi-fi
- Think about it: a wi-fi signal goes from your computer or smartphone to a router somewhere in your home or Starbucks or wherever you happen to be, and then through internet cable. It’s the leg from your device to the router that you need to worry about.
- If you’re at home, you’ve hopefully set up a private, password-protected wifi network. All good. If you’re anywhere else, using a secure wireless network should ensure that the information you send is protected. To be absolutely safe, conduct all activity that involves transmitting your personal info or accessing protected sites only on your secured wifi network at home. Encryption we talked about earlier doesn’t help you here.
- Wipe that device clean
- That old computer or mobile device you’re about to throw out probably contains data an identity thief would love to get. Before you discard it, first:
- If it’s a computer, overwrite or wipe the hard drive. You can find instructions online or in your owner’s manual. Wipe utility programs will also do this. Obviously, back up your hard drive before you overwrite or wipe it.
- If it’s a mobile device, find out how to 1) transfer your data to your new device and 2) delete your data from your old device. You’ll find instructions in the owner’s manual, on your service provider’s website, or on the device manufacturer’s website.
- If you’re not transferring the SIM card to your new mobile device, you can shred your SIM card just as you would an expired credit card—with scissors, cutting up the bronze foil area in particular.
- Consider a credit freeze
- Putting a freeze on your credit report restricts who can access your report, making it harder for bad actors to open accounts in your name. Credit freezes:
- Are free
- Don’t affect your credit score
- Don’t prevent you from getting your free annual credit report
- Can be temporarily or permanently lifted by you—for free—for inquiries by a specific person or firm (e.g., a landlord) or a certain time (e.g., the month before you close on a house) as you allow, in as quickly as one hour.
- A credit freeze doesn’t entirely shield your credit report. Existing creditors and debt collectors they hire can access it, as well as any government agencies responding to court orders.
- To freeze our credit reports or lift a credit freeze, contact the three credit report agencies: