Identity Theft: 5 Easy Ways to Protect Your Identity From Being Stolen
Every two seconds, someone falls victim to identity fraud in the United States. Could you be next?
While thieves tend to target specific groups, no one is immune to an attack. According to the Federal Trade Commission’s 2019 Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book, the most common fraud complaints included impostor scams, debt collection, and identity theft. Credit card fraud topped the list in identity theft cases. The FTC reported that more than 167,000 people reported identity theft when a fraudster opened a credit card account using their information.
The 2019 Identity Fraud Study from Javelin Strategy & Research showed a decline in identity theft 2017 and 2018, but the percentage of total claims rose 6% in 2019. Although there had been a decline in identity theft in 2017 and 2018, 2018 to 2019 shows a big jump from 444,358 calls (14% of total fraud cases) to 650,572 calls (20% of total fraud cases). In 2019, the total number of identity theft and fraud complaints reached $3.2 million.
Don’t let yourself become one of the people who becomes a victim this year or the next.
Who Is the Most Vulnerable to Identity Theft?
Con artists will scam and steal from any potential victim. However, some groups that make bigger targets than others. Take a look at the most vulnerable targets.
- Children are the most vulnerable to identity theft. A child’s identity is relatively easy to steal because there is nothing linked to the Social Security number – it’s a clean slate. Additionally, identity theft will likely go unnoticed until the child reaches 18 or older, so the thieves feel safe in taking the child’s information.
- Seniors rank second on the list of most vulnerable. Scammers count on seniors being less aware of bank and credit card accounts. Additionally, as people age, they become more trusting of others.
- Deployed Military. Deployed members of the military make the list for one simple reason – they’re busy. If soldiers are stationed on active duty abroad, it’s less likely they’ll take the time to scrutinize bank and credit card statements.
- Social media users. People who use social media often lack discretion when adding personal information to their profiles. Thieves can take even a small part of the data to delve into a person’s life and learn more than anyone has a right to know.
- The deceased. Like children, the dead don’t complain about identity theft. Think about the stories of politicians using a dead person’s information in voter fraud cases. Identity theft for financial gain is much more popular.
- The newest trend in identity theft is to target those that work at home. The number of people working at home has skyrocketed since the COVID-19 pandemic has forced people into lockdown. Computers and other connected devices may lack appropriate security, making it easy for hackers to steal data.
If you don’t fall into one of the above categories, you could still become a victim to identity theft. Below are 5 easy ways that you can protect your identity and finances.
1. Protect Your Social Security Number
Your Social Security number serves as your proof of identity. If stolen, it gives criminals access to your existing financial accounts and the ability to set up more. Protect it by memorizing your number for use, rather than taking your social security card on the go. Only share the number as needed with official sources you can verify - not over the phone or by email.
2. Safely Store or Shred Critical Documents
Your Social Security card isn't the only document that can put your identity at risk. Sensitive information, such as in bank statements and credit card solicitations, routinely arrive at your home. To protect yourself from theft, collect your mail promptly - and have the post office put it on hold while you’re on vacation or travelling for work. Store documents that need to be retained securely under lock and key, and shred the rest before discarding.
3. Secure Yourself Online
Identity thieves can easily obtain personal information through the internet. Be cautious about what you share online, such as your birth date or maiden name – people often use that info to answer account security questions. Protect yourself further by setting social media privacy settings to high, using complex account passwords, and disabling cookies that track your computer. Also, ensure your computer's antivirus and anti-spyware software is up to date.
4. Monitor Banking and Credit Reports Closely
Online banking makes it easy to monitor your account transactions routinely for unauthorized purchases. Look over your credit report periodically to check for suspicious activity or misinformation that can damage your financial standing. Save your receipts for comparison with bank statements and choose a credit reporting service that enables you to review your FICO score more than once per year.
5. Invest in Identity Theft Insurance
Once you've fallen victim to identity theft, it's typically costly and time-consuming to resolve. Additionally, statistics show that 23% of victims get targeted more than once. Identity theft insurance can provide a safety net to minimize theft-related damages. Consider insurance as an investment. You have insurance to protect your home or car – why not protect your identity? Recovering your identity is much more complicated than replacing a bumper or fixing a leaky roof. Choose insurance that will cover financial losses and offer fraud resolution support services.
You can also protect yourself by being on alert for potential phishing scams. Phishing is the act of sending fraudulent emails or calling people and pretending to be from reputable companies in order to access sensitive information. Avoid phone scams and the threat of your identity theft by using a caller ID app for iPhone to filter unknown phone calls and identify potential scams.
If you don't have an iPhone, you can still monitor phone calls and check for phishing scams by using CallerSmart's online phone book.
More Information on Identity Theft Protection Services
Many companies offer identity theft protection services, often linked to credit and financial services. You might ask yourself, what is identity theft protection service?
No one can guarantee that you will never face identity theft. What the companies offer is a plan to help you monitor your information, and if someone steals your identity, they will help you with recovery - untangling the mess to get you back on track.
Monitoring services typically cover two areas - credit monitoring and identity monitoring.
Credit monitoring services track activity on your credit reports. The plans can include one, two, or all three of the top credit bureaus —Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. Monitoring credit allows you to pick up on mistakes and potential fraud before things get out of hand. The service provides alerts when one of the following occurs:
- A company checks your credit history
- There is a change in your personal information - name, address, or phone number
- There is a change in your credit limit(s)
- Someone opens a new loan or credit card account in your name
- A creditor reports a late payment
- Records show that you’ve filed for bankruptcy
- Someone places a legal judgment against you
Credit monitoring only sends alerts regarding activity that shows on your credit report. Many types of identity theft will not show up, including the theft of money from your bank account or the use of your Social Security number to file a state or federal tax return and steal your refund.
Questions to ask credit monitoring providers:
- Which credit bureaus do you monitor?
- Can I access my credit score?
- How often will you monitor my reports?
- Can I access my credit reports? If so, how often? Is there a limit to how often I can check my reports? Is there a charge to access my credit scores or reports?
Identity monitoring services send an alert whenever your personal information, e.g., bank account information, Social Security number, passport, or driver’s license number, is used in ways that may not show up on your credit report. Alerts may include notifications of:
- Court or arrest records
- Requests for a change of address
- Installation/new contracts for utilities, cable or internet services
- Check cashing requests
- Payday loan applications
- New social media accounts
- Websites commonly used by identity thieves
Questions to ask:
- What kinds of information do you check, and how often?
- What personal information do you require from me? How will you use my data?
- Do you include other services with the identity monitoring service? Do they cost extra?
Identity recovery services help you regain control after identity theft occurs. The service often pairs customers with trained counselors or case managers who will take you through the process of resolving any identity theft problems. The services vary, but the company may help you to write letters to creditors and/or debt collectors, put a temporary freeze on your credit report, or walk you through essential documents.
Free Identity Theft Protection Services
Protection against identity theft doesn’t necessarily mean you have to pay large amounts of money to an outside company. You can do many things to protect yourself with little or no money.
- Monitor your credit reports for free. Federal law requires the three major credit bureaus to provide you with a free credit report once each year. You must request the reports and can do so by visiting AnnualCreditReport.com — the only authorized website to obtain free credit reports.
- Routinely review statements for your bank, credit card, retirement plan, brokerage, and other accounts.
- Consider placing a free credit/security freeze with the credit bureaus. The freeze blocks anyone from viewing your credit reports without your permission. It also prevents thieves from opening new accounts in your name. Similarly, you can place a free, one-year fraud alert on your credit report. The alert ensures that creditors must check with you before opening an account in your name. You can remove the alert at any time.
- Take advantage of free identity theft protection services offered by businesses and the government. Check out any company online to ensure legitimacy before you enroll.
Recovery Plans at IdentityTheft.gov
The federal government offers IdentityTheft.gov, a free, one-stop resource for reporting and recovering from identity theft. The website provides a personal, interactive recovery plan tailored to individual identity theft needs. The site will:
- Take you through each step to recover your identity.
- Generate an Identity Theft Report and supply pre-filled letters and forms for you to send to debt collectors, credit bureaus, and the IRS.
- Adapt to your needs, provide follow-up reminders, and help you to track your progress.
- Give advice if you’re a victim of a data breach.
Check out this video for more information:
Top Paid Identity Theft Protection Services
With identity theft on the rise, the number of identity theft protection services has increased. The following list includes the top five services as rated by customers, the FTC, and the Better Business Bureau.
Best Overall Monitoring Service: IdentityForce
IdentityForce offers 24/7 identity protection support and real-time alerts on suspicious activity.
- 2 months of free service on annual plans
- Family plans available
- Mobile device protection
- Investment account alerts
- Must upgrade plan to monitor both credit scores and credit reports
Best Credit Monitoring Service: IdentityIQ
IdentityIQ offers four plans to help individuals protect their personal information. They offer up to $1 million in coverage, even on their basic plan.
- Credit monitoring at all three credit bureaus
- Protection for family members
- Up to $1 million in coverage
- No monitoring for social media accounts
- No trial period
Best Overall Coverage: IdentityGuard
Identity Guard uses IBM® Watson™ Artificial Intelligence (AI) to detect identity threats using predictive analytics and provides recovery assistance. During set-up, you’ll be able to create a Watchlist for Identity Guard to monitor your email address, credit, accounts and phone numbers.
- 20 years of experience in the industry
- Family plans available
- IBM intelligent tracking
- Affordably priced
- Limited recovery services
- Lacks sex offender scanning
- No money-back guarantee
Award-winning Protection Plans: ID Watchdog
ID Watchdog provides credit monitoring for all three credit bureaus. Their identity monitoring services routinely checks public records for changes and transactions. Plans also include recovery services.
- Owned by Equifax
- Up to $1 million in ID theft insurance
- Affordable plans
- Family plans available
- Vague plan details
- Does not include credit reports or scores
Identity theft is a serious matter that takes minutes to occur and years - if not decades - to resolve. It wreaks havoc with creditors which can prevent you from getting a car loan, mortgage, credit card, or other necessities. While scammers use every trick imaginable to get a person’s information, you can avoid identity theft by refusing to reveal or verify any information over the phone, even if the call sounds official. Keep informed by reading about the latest scams and blocking calls from unknown numbers.