Identity theft is a threat that affects each and every one of us. It occurs when a bad actor steals our personal data, like credit cards, social security numbers, account numbers, or passwords, and then uses them for their own gain. Identity theft occurs both online and offline by way of phishing, clone websites, skimmers, scams, data breaches, and even by close friends and family, whom we thought we could trust. In the first half of 2021 alone, nearly 804,000 US cases of identity theft were reported to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
How to Recognize Identity Theft
Because identity theft can target so many different types of personal information, there is no single way to identify that we’ve been affected. Instead, we might notice one or more of these signs of fraud.
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.
Also, If you didn’t sign up for paperless billing and haven’t received your bill on time, it’s a good idea to contact the company. 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.
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2. Your credit score is rising or falling.
This might go against everything you’ve heard about identity theft. A rising credit score without any effort on your part can suggest 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. Further, many things can cause your credit score to drop. A late bill payment or hard inquiry to one of the major credit bureaus like Equifax, Transunion, or Experian might be the culprit. However, if your credit score is falling and there isn’t a valid reason, this could be a sign of identity theft.
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. You’re unexpectedly denied a loan or line of credit or your credit report shows new accounts you didn't open.
If you have good credit but find that your credit application is denied, it might signal that an identity thief has tampered with your credit history and negatively impacted your credit score.
Once they have your personal information, identity thieves open new credit accounts in your name. When this happens, they typically max out the card very quickly so they benefit before the victim notices and closes the account. When identity thieves fail to make the promised credit card or loan payments, those accounts are sent to collections. Since these fraudulent purchases are done in your name, you are the primary contact for collections attempts.
5. Your medical record shows unfamiliar conditions.
Identity thieves may use your health benefits without your knowledge. In many cases, it isn't noticed until you receive a bill in the mail, notice unfamiliar conditions, or are denied Medicare coverage because the identity thief has already maxed out your benefits.
6. A data breach monitoring alert.
If you use a tool to provide identity theft protection, you'll receive a fraud alert when your personal information is involved in a data breach. These are breaches where your personal information like passwords or credit card numbers were stored in a way that left them open to cybercriminals’ prying eyes.
How can I protect my identity online?
Unfortunately, fraud is everywhere. While we can never avoid being a target for fraud, there are several things that each of us can do to avoid becoming a victim of identity theft and other fraud attempts.
Use Strong Passwords
When choosing passwords for online accounts, like social media or financial accounts, choose a strong password that is easy to remember, but difficult for others to guess. Always make sure that you're using a different password for each of your accounts.
Strong passwords contain both upper and lower case letters, numbers. and symbols as these take identity thieves with password crackers years to uncover through authentication programs. If you're worried that you might not be able to remember the password, consider writing it down in a safe place that only you know about.
Check Your Credit Report and Account Statements 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 annualcreditreport.com.
If you see new accounts you didn't open or other signs of id theft, contact the credit bureau to place a credit freeze and visit identitytheft.gov to report and begin recovering from identity theft.
If your financial institution offers online banking, this is a great tool to use to ensure 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 identify immediately when a fraudulent charge has taken place and report it to your bank.
Be careful what you post on social media
Many 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. These things include your birth date, your mother's maiden name, the street you grew up on, and much more.
Be Aware of Phishing Scams
Phishing scams exist to trick unsuspecting victims into providing identity thieves and other cybercriminals with sensitive information like passwords, usernames, birth dates, and account numbers. They 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.
Avoid entering sensitive information on public wi-fi or on unsecured websites
Public wifi connections are prone to hacking. You should never access your financial accounts, enter credit card numbers, or other account numbers when using a public wi-fi connection. Instead, if you can't wait until you're in a safe place, like your home's wi-fi, 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 like your bank account numbers, social security card information, driver's license number, or your mother's maiden name -- you should also ensure that you're on a secure website.
You can identify a secure website by looking at its URL. An insecure website begins with HTTP:// whereas a secure website begins with HTTPS://. The "s" stands for "secure".
Use Payment Methods with Fraud Protection and Fraud Alerts
Credit cards come with significant fraud protection, but other payment methods do not. Wiring money or using gift cards are extremely risky because it’s nearly impossible to get your money back. Government offices and legitimate businesses will never ask you to pay by Western Union, MoneyGram, MoneyPak, or gift cards. If you’re asked to pay someone through these means, it’s a scam.
Use browser protection
Fraud on the Internet happens every day. From scam attempts to malware infections, spyware, and more, threats are everywhere. Because identity thieves use different techniques, no matter how well you educate yourself, you’ll never know each and every tactic cybercriminal use.
Browser protection bridges that gap and acts as a firewall to block threats so you can use the internet without the need to fear every click. Unlike traditional antivirus software, browser protection acts within your browser where threats are encountered. This allows threats to be blocked before they reach your computer.
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.
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. This means that if you're infected with a newer virus or threat, your traditional antivirus software may not detect the threat and thus allows it to continue living on your device.
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, scams, search hijackers, and more. Once identified, Guardio blocks the threat BEFORE it reaches your device and has a chance to cause damage or put your sensitive information at risk of identity theft.
Guardio also includes data breach monitoring alerts. These 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.