What is Identity Theft?
Identity theft, or ID theft, occurs when someone uses your personal information without your knowledge or consent. This could include your name, address, Social Security number, credit card number, bank account information or any combination of these. The imposter intends to commit fraud or other crimes in your name.
Common Methods of Identity Theft
- Physical Theft – A thief may steal your purse out of your car, your phone out of your pocket or your mail out of your mailbox.
- Hacking – Tech-savvy scam artists can break into computer systems or intercept personal information from an unsecure website.
- Phishing – This is an email-based scam in which the thief poses as a representative of a real organization and prompts the recipient to provide personal information such as credit card numbers or bank account information.
- Skimming – Thieves may install a skimming device on an ATM. A skimming device is a small card reader that fits over the existing card reader and has the ability to save a user’s card number and PIN.
- Shoulder Surfing – Shoulder surfers steal your information by watching you enter your PIN at the ATM or eavesdropping as you read your credit card number over the phone.
- Dumpster Diving – Identity thieves may go through your trash, looking for discarded bank statements, credit card offers or medical statements.
- Familiar Fraud – This occurs when the scammer is someone you know, like a family member or friend, who takes advantage of their access to you and your information.
It's possible for you to be a victim of identity theft and not even know it. Early detection is key to fighting identity theft so it's important to recognize possible warning signs that your information has been compromised.
- Unfamiliar activity on your credit report
- Collection calls or notices about accounts you never opened
- Credit report inquiries for loans, credit cards or services you didn't initiate
- Bills, statements or other expected mail doesn't arrive
- Bills or statements arrive for accounts you didn't open
- Medical providers bill you for services you didn't use
- The IRS says your income tax return has already been filed
Preventing Identity Theft
No one is immune from identity theft, but if you're proactive in protecting your information, you reduce the risk of becoming a victim. There are many steps you can take to protect yourself.
- Review your credit report once a year from the three major credit reporting bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Visit annualcreditreport.com for a free copy of your report. You can request this free copy once every 12 months.
- Guard your personal information. Don't give out your Social Security number unless absolutely necessary, and never respond to unsolicited requests for your information online or by phone or mail.
- Pay attention to your billing cycles and check your statements. If a bill is late, contact the sender right away. Review your credit card and bank account statements for unauthorized transactions. Contact your financial institution right away if you don't recognize a charge.
- Protect your mail. Always collect your mail promptly, and place a hold on your mail when you're on vacation. Elect to receive secure online statements in lieu of physical mail when possible.
- Dispose of sensitive documents carefully. Never simply throw away statements, pay stubs or letters that include your personal information. Use a cross-cut shredder or take advantage of the low-cost shred services at your local Staples, FedEx Office or UPS Store.
- Create complex passwords that cannot be easily guessed, and change them regularly.
- Only carry what you need. Don't keep your Social Security card in your wallet, and only bring the credit cards you regularly use.
- Avoid a false sense of security. Always keep an eye on your possessions and store important documents in a secure place.
Recovering From Identity Theft
If someone is using your information to make purchases, open new accounts or drain your finances, report it and get help. The Federal Trade Commission explains what steps to take if you believe you are a victim of identity theft.