Identity theft happens when someone steals your personal information to commit fraud. Most people who experience it have to take several steps to recover their identity and clean up the mess that was made—by no fault of their own.
Criminals have many ways to obtain your personally identifiable information (PII). They may send e-mails or make calls posing as trusted associates or officials (known as “phishing”), utilize hardware/software or service systems, create fake social media accounts to impersonate you, or even steal your mail or garbage to get important account numbers—just to name a few.
Once they have your PII, they can use your name and address, credit card or bank account numbers, Social Security number, or medical insurance account numbers to commit fraud. This may include buying things with your credit card or opening new ones, opening utility accounts, stealing your tax refund, getting medical care, or pretending to be you if they’re arrested.
The frequency of identity theft has increased dramatically in recent years. According to a revised 2017 “Victims of Identity Theft” report from the U.S. Department of Justice:
- 17.6 million Americans, or 7% of those 16 years or older, were victims.
- 86% experienced misuse of an existing credit card or bank account.
- 7% experienced multiple types of identity theft.
- 14% of identity theft victims experienced an out of pocket loss. Of these, 49% suffered losses less than $100 and 14% lost $1,000 or more.
The three d’s
Unfortunately, if identity theft happens to you, you’re responsible for what the thief does with your PII. You may even have to pay for anything they buy. So it’s important to do what you can to minimize your risk of becoming an identity theft victim.
FINRA (Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, Inc.), an organization that plays a critical role in ensuring the integrity of America’s financial system, has outlined a simple practice that anyone can do: The Three D’s: Deter, Detect, Defend. Here are some tips you can follow using their easy-to-remember outline.
- Using preventive measures to help safeguard your important information can significantly reduce your risk.
- Protect user names, passwords, and PINs by keeping them private. Create complex passwords and change them often. Don’t use the same password for multiple accounts.
- Use two-factor authentication when available. It makes your account more secure by adding an extra step to your basic log-in procedure, such as a PIN, generated code, fingerprint, etc.
- Be sure your computer has security software and keep it up to date. Same goes for your mobile devices.
- Appliances, security systems, thermostats, and other consumer products that connect to the internet should only be purchased from reputable sources. Keep firmware up to date and use strong passwords. Be clear about their data privacy policies—devices become “smart” because they collect a lot of personal data.
- Use your own computer and secured internet connection when you access personal accounts, shop online, etc. Don’t use public Wi-Fi when accessing confidential information or using credit cards.
- Never buy anything from a Web site (or enter PII) that doesn’t start with HTTPS. It should also have a padlock icon in the address bar.
- Use care when downloading files from Web sites or clicking on links.
- Don’t carry your Social Security card in your wallet, and only give your number out when necessary (see end of article for more info).
- Shred anything that has personal information, account numbers, etc., before you dispose of it.
- Never leave paid bills in your mailbox for the mail carrier to pick up.
While most people understand the need to protect their Social Security number and PIN, other identifiers could help a thief access your PII. Many people actively publish data online about themselves through social media, organizational Web sites, and e-mail signature blocks, and don’t think much about it. But the more information a thief has (such as your name, address, e-mail, birthdate, maiden name, gender), the easier it can be to assume your identity. Be thoughtful about what you share and where.
- It’s important to keep a close eye on your finances and be wary of anything that seems a little off or too good to be true.
- Never respond to a call or e-mail that asks you to give personal information such as your Social Security number, account numbers, passwords, etc.
- Check your bank and credit card accounts regularly, and compare receipts with statements. Take time to read the statements from your health insurance plan as well.
- Check your credit report using annualcreditreport.com. You can check all of them annually, or stagger checks between Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax throughout the year.
- Watch for things you didn’t buy, withdrawals you didn’t make, a change of address you didn’t expect, and bills that stop coming.
As soon as you suspect a problem, it’s time to take action. Warning signs can include unfamiliar accounts on your credit report, strange withdrawals from your bank account, or bills or calls about debts that aren’t yours. If you’re a victim of identity theft:
- Report the identity theft by visiting the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Web site, identitytheft.gov. The site will help you create an Identity Theft Report and a personal recovery plan based on your situation.
- File a report with your local police department.
- Call the companies where you know fraud occurred. You may have to close accounts opened in your name or report fraudulent charges to your credit card company as well.
- Place a fraud alert on your credit reports.
Wondering if you’re covered with your WEA Member Benefits’ home insurance policy? The answer is yes. Your policy reimburses up to $10,000 for expenses that occur from identity theft. Benefits include:
- $300 in coverage if you need to hire a theft recovery service to help you restore your identity.
- Lost salary or wages up to $200 per day, up to $5,000, resulting from time taken off work to restore your identity.
- Loan application fees.
- Reasonable attorney fees.
- Costs for notarizing documents.
Remember, even the most careful among us can fall victim to identity theft. So it’s more important than ever to protect all of your personal identifiable information, because this information is often a key ingredient in a scam.
When should I share my Social Security number?
While not every request for your Social Security number is an effort to steal your identity, not every request is mandatory either. In general, you may need to provide your Social Security number to:
- Financial institutions, such as banks or brokerage firms.
- Banks, credit card issuers, or other lenders.
- Landlords or utility providers (such as a power company).
- Government agencies to obtain services and to file your taxes.
- Credit reporting agencies—Equifax, Experian, or TransUnion—or annualcreditreport.com to obtain your credit report or credit score.