Becoming a victim of identity theft is happening more often with today’s advanced technology. Because of this, you need to remain on high alert to protect yourself from fraud.
How does identity theft occur?
Unfortunately, it is very easy to find personal information online. If you have ever “Googled” yourself, you might have been surprised to see that your phone number, full name, previous addresses, current address, birth date, and possible relatives are all listed for everyone on the world wide web to see. This makes it easier for a thief to steal your information since addresses and birth dates are commonly used as identity verification tools. Your information can also be accessed on social networking sites. Remember to keep your accounts private and do not accept friend requests from people you do not know.
Someone can even steal your information by dumpster diving and looking for bank statements, credit card statements and other personal information. Remember to shred all of your personal documents when possible.
Some thieves will try to trick you into telling them your social security number on the phone by posing as a representative of a government agency such as the IRS. Robo-calls have also been very successful in stealing information. A government agency will never contact you by phone nor will they threaten you into making a payment or providing personal information. This includes the IRS!
Information is also frequently stolen through inauthentic emails. Never click on a link inside of an email. If an email asks you to validate your account when you did not recently create a new account, it is best to log into the website directly from outside of the email.
Information can be leaked through business data breaches. The famous Equifax breach affected up to 147 million people. Just for some perspective, there are about 330 million people in the United States (including children who do not have any credit history). The breach leaked millions of names, social security numbers, birth dates, addresses, and some driver’s license numbers. If you have been affected by this breach, the best preventive action you can take is to constantly monitor your credit reports. I have personally been affected by this breach and I use Credit Karma to monitor my credit report. It is free to use, does not affect your credit whenever you check the website, and has been very helpful in protecting me and others from identity theft.
What do I do if I suspect my identity has been stolen?
I personally received an email late one evening from Credit Karma alerting me that a new inquiry was reported on my credit report. I had not recently applied for any credit cards, so I knew that there was an error. Credit Karma will show you which bank the inquiry is from. The first thing I did was call that bank and alert them that this application did not come from me. Shockingly, the thief had my social security number, name, birth date, current address and old phone number. The bank immediately deleted the application.
The next step I took was to call the three credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and Transunion) to freeze my credit. The bureaus will send you a pin that you will need to use each time you unfreeze your credit. It prevents anyone from being able to open new accounts in your name and new fraud from occurring. It also does not affect your credit score and it is free to freeze your credit. If you become a victim of identity theft, remember to keep track of these identification numbers.
If you have your identity stolen, in addition to freezing your credit, you should take the following steps:
• Place a fraud alert on your credit report
• Report the identity theft to the FTC
• File a police report
• Contact Equifax, Experian and Transunion to remove any fraudulent information
• Change all of your passwords (as a precaution)
o Use at least 10 characters
o Use random letters
o Include numbers
o Include symbols such as:
o Avoid dictionary words
o Change your passwords often
o Do not use the same password for all accounts
o Do not use any obvious numbers such as address numbers, zip codes, or birth dates
o Do not use obvious words such as names or cities related to you
• Always use two-factor authentication when it is offered
o Gmail now has the option to text your phone number a code before being able to access your email
o Apple iCloud alerts you anytime someone is trying to login from a different location
• Install firewalls and anti-virus software on your computer
• Collect your mail daily
• Place a password on your phone
• Replace your stolen identification
o If your social security card was stolen, request a replacement card from the social security administration
o Replace any stolen driver’s license or ID
o If your passport was stolen, report this to the State Department
• Contact your telephone and utility providers
o Identity thieves can try and open a utility account under your information as proof of residence
Never let your guard down
Remember to always stay alert for any fraudulent activity. Never give away your passwords. Check your credit card and bank statements frequently and scan your transactions to look for any suspicious activity. When traveling, remember to alert your banks of your upcoming trips. Act quickly if you do suspect suspicious activity to limit possible damage. Identity theft can happen to anyone even if you are careful about the information you share (especially with the Equifax breach).