How To Avoid & Recognize Identity Theft Online

August 12th · 13 min read

Rotem Tal - Senior Cybersecurity Expert |Writer & Editor|
Rotem Tal - Senior Cybersecurity Expert |Writer & Editor|

Identity theft can happen to anyone: True story

2022 was a pretty bumping year for Jessica.

She stole a Tesla, bought a brand-new iPhone, and got into a car accident apparently while driving a BMW (not the Tesla). Jessica also paid someone's bail, which they skipped, opened numerous new bank accounts, applied for a handful of new credit cards, and, to top it off, went on a bad check-writing spree that totaled up to $13,000. In theory, Jessica had a wild year, to say the least. In reality, that year, and the one that followed, was a living nightmare for her.

Unfortunately, Jessica experienced the harsh reality of identity theft, and it all began with a seemingly innocent click on a phishing email. This could be anyone's story.

In the first half of 2021 alone, nearly 804,000 US cases of identity theft were reported to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

In this article, we'll deep dive into the alarming truth about identity theft: what it is, how it impacts people, and the alarming statistics associated with it. We'll cover the various warning signs - from suspicious credit card charges to unexpected tax return rejections and changes in your credit score. More importantly, we'll offer some tips on how to recognize identity theft and stay safe. Last but definitely not least, we'll give you the ins and outs of how effective security software, like Guardio’s online identity protection, can be a game-changer in offering that extra layer of protection against identity theft.

Let's dive in!

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What’s identity theft?

Identity theft is a frightening and increasingly common type of crime where an individual’s personal and sensitive data is illegally stolen and exploited, often without them even knowing it. This happens when a bad actor (thief, hacker, cybercriminal) steals your personal data, like credit cards, social security numbers, account numbers, or passwords, and then uses them to impersonate you - for their own gain.

The methods of getting that information range from sophisticated hacking and phishing schemes to more rudimentary tactics like rummaging through trash or stealing mail. Once identity thieves have gathered the necessary personal details, they can embark on a spree of fraudulent activities. For example, they might:

Open new credit card accounts: They can apply for credit cards under your name, rack up charges, and never pay the bills, which can and will ruin your credit score.

Drain existing accounts: With access to bank account details, criminals can withdraw cash, transfer money, or make large purchases that drain your wallet.

Apply for loans: Using your name and credit history, identity thieves can take out loans, leaving you responsible for the repayments.

Medical identity theft: These criminals can use your health insurance to receive medical care, prescription drugs, or surgery, which can lead to false medical records and massive bills. Think of receiving a medical bill for a surgery you never underwent or you're legitimate insurance claims being rejected due to records of services they never received.

Commit crimes under your identity: If arrested, a thief might provide your information to law enforcement, leading to wrongful criminal records. Sounds ridiculous, right? But this can totally happen. Imagine getting routinely stopped by police for a missed stop sign or something really minor, and all of sudden, you discover that there’s actually a warrant out for your arrest. The reason? The identity thief gave out your name and probably some sort of stolen ID during an arrest.

File fraudulent tax returns: Identity thieves can use your social security number to file tax returns and steal tax refunds. An individual’s tax return might be rejected because someone else has already filed a return using their social security number.

Rent or buy properties: By gaining your identity, these scammers can sign leases or purchase properties, which can result in legal and financial headaches.

Utility and telecommunication services: Wouldn’t it be fun if someone else paid your bills? Well, that’s exactly what identity thieves think as well. They set up services like electricity, water, internet, and phone accounts, ALL under your name. That way, they get all these utilities for free, and you’re stuck with piled-up unpaid bills and possible service interruptions (since you didn’t pay the bills).

How to Recognize Identity Theft

Because identity theft can take on so many forms, there's not just one red flag that'll wave at you to signal something's wrong. Instead, you might spot a patchwork of clues that suggest something fishy is going on with your personal info. Keep an eye out for these unexpected signs that could mean your identity's been hijacked:

1. A strange charge on your credit card bill or a lack of credit card bills: Do you see a charge on your credit card or bank statement that you don’t recall making? Even a minor discrepancy can be a sign of credit card fraud. Before making a big move, cybercriminals often test the validity of a stolen credit card number or financial account number by making one or more small fraudulent purchases to make sure it’s valid.

If you didn’t sign up for paperless billing and haven't received your bill on time, it’s a good idea to give your financial institution a call. Cybercriminals committing identity theft often file a change of address with the post office to get their hands on mail that contains personally identifiable information that they can use to commit fraud.

2. Your credit score is rising or falling: This might go against everything you’ve heard about identity theft. But contrary to what you may have heard, a rising credit score without any effort on your part can mean that an identity thief is attempting to extend credit in your name. Once they’ve done that, they have more money to spend at your expense. On the flip side, there are also a lot of things that can cause your credit score to drop. A late bill payment or hard inquiry by one of the major credit bureaus like Equifax, Transunion, or Experian might be the culprit. But, if your credit score is falling and there isn’t a valid reason, it could be a sign that an identity thief is wreaking havoc on your credit.

3. Your tax return is rejected: Identity thieves often file false tax returns to intercept victims’ tax refunds. In most cases, it isn’t until the IRS rejects your real tax return or you receive an unexpected tax transcript in the mail that it’s identified that a thief is using your identity.

4. Denied a loan or line of credit, or your credit report shows new accounts you didn't open: Imagine paying every bill on time, keeping all of your loans in check, and for years building up a perfect credit score, only to find that your credit application is denied. This should raise alarm bells- as it might signal that an identity thief has tampered with your credit history and negatively impacted your credit score.

Once identity thieves gain access to your personal information, they can open new credit accounts in your name and max them out before you even notice. Because you probably don’t even know about the credit cards or bills, they go unpaid and are sent to collections. And since these unauthorized purchases are done under your name, you’re the primary contact for collections attempts. Guess who’s stuck with the bill and ruined credit? You.

5. Your medical record shows unfamiliar conditions: Identity thieves may use your health benefits without you even knowing it. In many cases, it isn't noticed until you receive a bill in the mail or discover unfamiliar conditions listed on your medical statement. As a result, your Medicare coverage might even get denied because the identity thief has already maxed out your benefits.

6. A data breach monitoring alert: Even if you use all the precautions in the world, your data can still be stolen by cybercriminals. Data breaches happen when cybercriminals infiltrate businesses, companies, and even government databases, gaining unauthorized access to vast troves of personal information—everything from social security numbers and online passwords to bank account details. This exposed data can be a goldmine for identity thieves, who can use it to impersonate you, swipe your hard-earned cash, or open fraudulent accounts in your name. That’s where having a safe online browsing security tool can come in handy.

Guardio is a browser extension and mobile app that not only alerts you when your personal information is compromised but also provides continuous monitoring to ensure that your digital presence remains locked down tight. With Guardio, you're not just informed; you're protected, keeping your identity out of the hands of identity thieves.

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This is what our customers have to say

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How to avoid identity theft online

Sadly, today's digital world is full of hackers and cybercriminals waiting to pounce on the opportunity to steal your information. While you can never avoid being a target for fraud, there are several things that you can do to avoid becoming a victim of identity theft and other scams.

- Use strong passwords: When choosing passwords for online accounts, like social media or financial services, choose a strong password that is easy to remember but difficult for others to guess. Make sure that you're using a different password for each account and to change it every few months.

Strong passwords contain both upper and lower-case letters, numbers, and symbols, which make it super difficult for identity thieves with password crackers to uncover. If you're worried that you might not be able to remember the password, consider using a password manager or writing it down in a safe place that only you know about.

- Check your finances regularly: Make sure to review your annual credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus -Equifax, Transunion, and Experian. Each of these credit bureaus offers free credit reports once per year through

If you see new accounts you didn't open or other signs of ID theft, contact the credit bureau to place a credit freeze. Also, make sure to visit to report it.

Most financial institutions offer online banking, which is a great way to check that your credit card and account numbers aren't being used by identity thieves. Instead of relying on a monthly statement by mail, you can immediately see when a fraudulent charge has taken place and report it to your bank.

- Be careful what you post on social media: Let’s be honest, most of us don't realize the dangers involved in posting personal information on social media. It's important to keep anything that might be used on account security questions private. Things like your birth date, your mother's maiden name, the street you grew up on, and your cat's name can all be used by identity thieves to steal your info.

- Don't fall for phishing scams: Phishing is a method used by scammers to trick people into providing them with sensitive information like passwords, usernames, birth dates, and account numbers. They send fake emails or often mimic the look and feel of legitimate websites, so you may not realize you're on a phishing website until after you've sent your sensitive information to an identity thief. It’s always a good idea to use some caution whenever opening an email or going on a website you don’t know. There are also online phishing protection tools that’ll immediately block phishing websites and alert you if you ever receive a sketchy email.

- Be cautious on public Wi-Fi or unsecured websites: Public Wi-Fi connections are prone to hacking. Never access your financial accounts, enter credit card numbers or other account information when using a public Wi-Fi connection. If it's urgent and you can't wait until you have a safe conection, consider using your phone's mobile data to access your sensitive information.

In addition to avoiding public Wi-Fi when accessing or entering sensitive information - you should also ensure that you're on a secure website. You can identify a secure website by looking at its URL. An unsecure website begins with HTTP://, whereas a secure website begins with HTTPS://. The "s" stands for "secure". To learn more, check out this article.

- Use payment methods with fraud alerts and protection: Most credit cards come with extensive fraud protection, while other payment methods don’t. Wiring money or using gift cards are extremely risky because it’s nearly impossible to get your money back in case of fraud. Government offices and legitimate businesses will never ask you to pay by Western Union, MoneyGram, MoneyPak, or gift cards. So if you’re asked to pay someone through these methods, it’s definitely a scam.

Illustration showcasing elements associated with online identity theft.

- Use browser protection: Fraud on the Internet happens every day. From scam attempts to malware infections, spyware, and more. Online threats are everywhere! Because identity thieves use different techniques, no matter how well you educate yourself, you’ll never be fully able to stop cybercriminals from stealing your data. That is unless you have Guardio’s safe online browsing security tools.

Online browser protection eliminates that security gap by acting as a firewall that blocks security risks. That way, you can surf the web without the need to fear every click you make. Unlike traditional antivirus software, browser protection acts within your PC or mobile browser where threats are encountered.

How can I choose the right tool to protect myself online?

Choosing the right tool to protect yourself online sounds like a daunting task. When it comes down to it, there are two main types of protection tools you can choose from: threat removers and threat blockers.

Threat removers

When you think of traditional antivirus software, you're typically thinking of threat removers. These tools work by scanning your device for threats contained in their virus databases. If one is found, the antivirus software then attempts to remove the threat from your device. The problem with threat removers is that once infected, the threat already has a chance to cause (sometimes irreparable) harm to your computer. This method also requires that you regularly update the virus database. Which means that if you're infected with a newer virus or threat, your traditional antivirus software may not detect the threat and thus allow it to continue harming your device.

Threat blockers

With newer technology available, threat blockers have become the new first line of defense against threats encountered online. Threat blockers, like Guardio, live within your browser where most online threats are encountered.

Guardio uses AI technology to identify threats like phishing, search hijackers, and other online scams. Once identified, Guardio blocks the threats BEFORE they reach your device and have a chance to cause any damage or put your sensitive information at risk of identity theft.

Guardio’s online identity protection also includes data breach monitoring alerts that let you know when your sensitive information has been breached so that you know to take action to secure your accounts and minimize the effects of the breach.

The bottom line

The threat of identity theft is both real and prevalent, with consequences that can ripple through every aspect of your life. It isn't just a headline you skim over during your morning coffee; it's an everyday threat that could knock on your door. But you're not helpless. Paying attention to the warning signs is like knowing there's a storm coming and having your rain boots, a coat, and an umbrella handy. While understanding the red flags—like unexplained financial transactions and discrepancies in personal records— can be helpful, it’s also important to equip yourself with the right security tools.

Guardio's comprehensive online identity protection is critical in safeguarding your personal information. Think of Guardio as your first line of defense, always on alert, offering you that crucial layer of security. So, remember that with a mix of caution and the right tools at your disposal, you can stand strong against identity theft. It's all about staying sharp, savvy, and secure—with a little help from friends like Guiardio. Stay informed, stay alert, and let Guardio strengthen your digital safety net.

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