Identity theft is a large and growing problem. Identity thieves are creative and are constantly coming up with new ways to get your personal information and new ways to use it. Understanding the common ways that identity thieves obtain and use personal information can help you prevent identity theft and detect it quickly if it happens.
What Information Do Identity Thieves Look for?
Identity thieves look for personally identifiable information, or PII. PII is all of the information that identifies and describes you. Some of this information is private and some may be public.
Here are some examples of PII:
- Your Full Name
- Your Address
- Your Phone Number
- Your Workplace and Employment Details.
- Your Birthplace and Birth date.
- Your Email Addresses
- Your Social Security Number
- Your Passport Number
- Your Driver’s License Number
- Your Credit Card Details
- Bank or Investment Account Numbers
- Login Credentials Like Usernames and Passwords
- Medical Records
- Insurance Information
- Military Credentials
All or some of these details can be combined to allow identity thieves to impersonate you.
How Identity Thieves Can Use Your Information
Identity thieves have developed a long list of ways to use your identity for their own profit, and at your expense. These are some of the most common.
- Open Credit Cards or Take Out Loans. If thieves get access to your Social Security Number, name, birth date, and address, they can take out a loan or open a credit card in your name. They won’t pay the loan, or the credit card bills, and the damage will go on your credit history.
- Use Your Debit Card Number to Withdraw Funds. Identity thieves often use skimmers or just look over a shoulder to gain access to a PIN number. Once your debit card details have been compromised a thief can drain your account. Unlike credit cards, debit cards have little fraud protection, and you may never get your money back.
- Open a Bank Account and Write Checks. An identity thief could open a checking account in your name, make the minimum deposit, and go on a check-writing spree. By the time the bank realizes something is wrong there could be hundreds or thousands of dollars spent in your name.
- Claim Your Tax Refund. A thief with your name, birth date, and Social Security number can file a tax return in your name and claim your refund. You’ll only find out when you file your own return and it gets rejected.
- Get Medical Treatment. Some identity thieves are using stolen PII, including health insurance account numbers, to get medical treatment in someone else’s name. As soon as the treatment is finished, they disappear; leaving treatment and medical records in your name that aren’t yours.
- Open Phone or Utility Accounts. Thieves can use your PII to open mobile phone accounts or get access to utilities in your name. They may run up bills and even use your identity for illegal activities over the phone.
- Change Address Records So Bills Won’t Come to You. Clever thieves will often change the address record on an account they are using so the bills won’t come to you. You may not even know a debt is being run up in your name until an irate collector tracks you down.
- Get a Driver’s License or Other ID. Fake ID can be very useful to a criminal. If they get pulled over or arrested, they become you, and there’s an arrest or a ticket on your record that you don’t know anything about.
- Sell Your Information to Other Identity Thieves. Some thieves don’t even want to use your information. They’ll just sell it on the dark web, and once your PII are for sale they could make their way into the hands of dozens of other thieves.
Identity thieves may use more than one of these methods at the same time. They can also use your information very quickly. In 2017 the FTC posted false identity information on dark web sites that are used to sell stolen PII. Attempts to access the dummy accounts began only nine minutes after they were posted.
How Do Thieves Get Your PII?
We tend to associate identity theft with high-tech hacking, and many thefts do involve the theft of data from our devices or other databases where our information is stored.
- Data breaches can compromise millions of accounts in a single theft. High profile breaches like that of Equifax in 2017 or Capital One in 2019 get the attention, but thousands of smaller data breaches occur every year, at businesses ranging from hospitals to retailers.
- Breaking into your online accounts can yield a treasure trove of information for identity thieves. Simple, predictable passwords often make access to your accounts all too easy, and many people use email or private message systems to communicate critical information.
- Gaining remote or physical access to your computer or phone is a popular way to gain access to your information. Mobile phones and laptops can be stolen, and poor security on public networks or exposed Bluetooth connections can leave your devices vulnerable even while they’re in your possession.
- Skimming involves the use of equipment installed at ATMs or self-service gas pumps to record your credit or debit card details.
- Purchasing your PII on the dark web. Sets of information are routinely sold on the dark web and identity thieves will know all of the illicit marketplaces.
- Fake websites can lure unwary users into entering financial information. A site may be a convincing duplicate of a site belonging to a legitimate financial institution or may pose as a retailer offering “too good to be true” prices on desirable goods.
Not all identity thefts involve technology. There are also much less sophisticated ways for thieves to get your PII.
- Theft of a wallet or purse can leave a thief in possession of multiple critical documents.
- Dumpster diving is a common way to gain access to personal information. Discarded bank or credit card statements, among many other documents, can provide all of the information a thief needs to take over your identity.
- Mail theft is common and often all too easy, for both incoming and outgoing mail. Financial statements and even bills can compromise your PII.
- Contacting you by phone or e-mail. Con artists claiming to represent a financial institution may persuade you to reveal personal details. They may already have enough of your information to make a convincing pitch.
A thief who has obtained some of your personal information with one method may target you with other techniques to try to get more. A surprising amount of information may be available in public directories and social media accounts.
What Are the Signs That Your PII Have Been Compromised?
Some victims don’t discover identity theft until months or even years after it occurs. Detecting identity theft quickly can limit the damage and make recovery much easier.
These are some common early signs of identity theft.
- You may be informed of a data breach by a company that has your personal information.
- You see withdrawals from your bank accounts that you didn’t make.
- Your checks or credit cards suddenly get refused.
- Your credit card statements show transactions you didn’t make.
- Your credit takes a sudden dive.
- Your credit report shows accounts that aren’t yours.
- You stop getting regular bills or expected mail.
- Debt collectors contact you about debts that aren’t yours.
- Your medical record shows treatment you didn’t get or conditions you don’t have. You may be refused medical treatment due to unpaid accounts for treatment you never got.
- The IRS notifies you that more than one tax refund was filed in your name or shows records of income you didn’t earn.
You can detect identity theft faster and more effectively by keeping close track of your financial records. Review all bank and credit card statements carefully. Get your credit reports regularly and inspect them carefully. Never ignore a sign that could show identity theft.
How Can I Protect My PII?
There is no way to assure your personal information is safe. Almost anyone in the modern world can have information compromised in a data breach. Like most criminals, though, identity thieves tend to focus on the easiest targets, and there’s a lot you can do to make yourself a difficult target. Securing your personal information requires time, effort, and attention, but the protection you get is well worth the effort.
For a good review of basic information security measures, see the Federal Trade Commission’s advice on how to keep your personal information secure.
If you think you’re at risk of identity theft, consider a credit monitoring service, which will notify you immediately of any new activity involving your credit report.
You may also consider an identity theft protection service, which monitors your credit report and other public records. Some services will even do regular searches on the dark web to see if your information appears there.
Personally Identifiable Information is the key to your identity. Anyone who steals it can easily impersonate you. You should be aware of what information you need to secure, how it can be used against you, and what you can do to keep it secure.
Identity theft is a constant threat. You can put the odds in your favor by actively securing your information, checking your records regularly and consistently, and acting quickly if anything seems wrong.