Identity theft affects millions of Americans each year. In fact, a 2018 Harris Poll survey indicates that nearly 15 million consumers fell victim to identity theft in 2017 to the tune of $16.8 billion in stolen funds.
Safeguarding your identity starts with being aware of how identity thieves are attempting to get access to your sensitive information. And if you are a victim of identity theft, it’s important to know what type of theft you’re dealing with to know what kind of actions you need to take.
- Account Identity Theft
There are two types of account identity thieves: Those who exploit existing accounts and those who use your personal data to open new accounts in your name without your permission.
Existing Account Identity Theft
The most common kinds of identity theft come when thieves steal your personal information and use it to access your existing accounts. These scammers often get the information they need to access your accounts through a data breach, malware attack or a phishing scam. Once they have access to your account, they can make unauthorized withdrawals from and charges to your accounts.
Fortunately, this type of theft is easy to spot. Carefully comb through your account statements regularly, at least once a week, looking for fraudulent charges.
New Account Identity Theft
Thieves use a variety of methods to create a new account using your identity. For example, they can pull credit card applications out of your trash and apply for them. They can also search through the internet, gathering your personal data to use as a lever to open new accounts.
It can be difficult to notice this type of theft. You won’t be able to look for fraudulent charges on a statement, because you likely won’t be receiving a statement to review . Criminals will usually use a different address in order to keep you in the dark as long as possible.
Instead, check your credit report often, looking for new accounts you don’t recognize.
Make sure to get your annual free credit reports or subscribe to a service.
- Tax Identity Theft
When thieves gain access to your personal information, they can use that data to file a tax return in your name and intercept your refund.
If you discover that someone filed for a tax return in your name, report the issue to the IRS immediately. You may need to file a fraud claim and get a PIN number to use in the future.
Also, remember that if someone files taxes in your name, it’s a good indicator they already have your personal information. Act swiftly by reviewing your credit reports looking for fraudulent activity. Also consider placing a credit freeze on your credit report.
To prevent this kind of theft, don’t respond to calls, texts or emails you receive that claim to be from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Remember, the IRS does not contact consumers using these methods and they don’t threaten legal action.
- Medical Identity Theft
Medical identity theft occurs when scammers use your personal information, including your name, Social Security number and insurance information to take advantage of medical services and information. They steal your identity in order to gain access to medical care, medication or health insurance coverage.
- Child Identity Theft
Most minors under age 16 do not have credit yet, or credit reports. This means criminals can open credit accounts, apply for government benefits and take out loans in their name without anyone knowing. Making matters worse is some victims may not even discover the nefarious activity until they apply for job or a loan
You can contact the three major credit bureaus to determine if your child has a credit report. If they do, file an FTC Identity Theft Report and consider placing a credit freeze on your child’s credit report.
- Drivers License Identity Theft
Identity thieves hit the jackpot when they steal your driver’s license because it contains your physical information, your date of birth and your signature. A thief can then use your license to make purchases in your name, or they can use your information to create counterfeit IDs with a picture of someone else.
What’s more, scammers can use your driver’s license to obtain even more information about you. That’s because your driver’s license is linked to your vehicle registration, auto insurance, DMV records and medical records among others.
If your driver’s license is stolen, report the crime to your local police, notify the DMV and consider adding an initial fraud alert to your credit file.
- Social Security Identity Theft
The most valuable personal information a thief can get their hands on is arguably your Social Security number. Scammers who know your Social Security number can use it in conjunction with your other personal information to open banking and credit accounts, receive medical services, and get a tax refund — all in your name.
Like tax identity theft, thieves who perpetrate this scam often get your sensitive information by contacting you and pretending to be from a government agency, such as the Social Security Administration (SSA). They often use scare tactics, such as claiming your Social Security number is about to be suspended unless you verify your identity by giving them the number.
It can’t be overstated; never give your Social Security number, or other personal data, to anyone who contacts you unsolicited.
- Mail Identity Theft
One of the oldest ways for a criminal to get your personal information is by stealing your mail from your mailbox or garbage can. When a thief steals your mail, they’re hoping to gain information about your financial accounts they can use to make purchases or open new credit card accounts.
Always shred documents containing your personal data before throwing them out. Also, drop outgoing mail in U.S. Postal Services collection boxes or hand it directly to your mail carrier. Finally, you should never leave mail in your mailbox overnight or on the weekends.
- Employment Identity Theft
Sometimes a con artist who is unable to get a job due to poor credit or a criminal record may steal your Social Security number to get a job in your name.
That employer is responsible for reporting the income. In this case, the income was earned under your name and Social Security number. That means the IRS will likely contact you looking to collect taxes on the income the scammer earned in your name.
To spot this sort of identity theft, check the soft inquiries section of your credit report. Look for unusual entries from employers or others you don’t recognize. Then contact the company you suspect is employing someone in your name.
- Synthetic Identity Theft
This type of identity theft is the fastest-growing financial crime in the U.S. “Synthetic” identity theft refers to the ways in which thieves can use your existing personal information combined with fake information to create an entirely new, fraudulent identity.
The legitimate information, including Social Security numbers, names, addresses, and birthdays, is often obtained on the dark web.
Fraudsters create these fabricated identities to open loans or apply for credit cards. Most of the credit card fraud losses in the U.S. can be attributed to synthetic identity theft, which impacts retailers.
Synthetic theft also hurts consumers. For instance, someone can open an account with a fake name and address, but a real Social Security number — yours. In this case, the account might not appear on your credit report, making it difficult to catch the fraud.
Take caution if you begin to receive mail or phone calls regarding new credit accounts or if you receive any mail addressed to someone else. It may be a sign of synthetic identity theft.
- Senior Identity Theft
Seniors are a popular target for identity thieves for many reasons:
- Seniors may not be checking their accounts and statements often since they aren’t opening as many new accounts or looking for new credit.
- These older Americans often have a sizable nest egg consisting of savings and investments, at a time when the aging process is beginning to take its toll.
- Dementia or other serious health conditions may hinder their ability to make good decisions.
- Seniors are vulnerable as they are often alone, perhaps having lost a spouse.
Because of these reasons, seniors often become identity theft victims by trusting the wrong person. Some scammers may even develop a relationship with a senior by preying on them through email or over the phone.
Seniors can protect themselves by developing greater awareness of the ways thieves try to access their information. Here are a few helpful tips for seniors.
- Freeze your credit, especially if you rarely need to access your credit report. .
- Never carry your Social Security card.
- Only answer the phone for phone numbers you recognize. Would-be thieves don’t usually leave messages.
- Don’t be afraid to hang up when a stranger asks for personal information.
- If someone threatens you for your information, it is most likely a scam.
- If you’re not sure about something, get help from a trusted friend or family member.
The Bottom Line
Diligently keeping track of your accounts and reviewing your personal data is the best way to be aware of potential threats to your identity. Always take quick action when you notice something unusual.
If your statements show charges you don’t recognize, or if your credit reports list accounts you didn’t open, contact the affected companies as soon as possible to close the accounts. You should also file a complaint or submit an Identity Theft Report with the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC also provides helpful information about how to recover from identity theft.