Many of us know that identity theft is a growing problem, but most may not be aware that identity theft affects more than 17 million people per year. A recent Next Avenue article discusses the two primary types of identity theft, account takeover and identity takeover, and discusses ways you can prevent or remedy it.
Account takeover is the most common form of identity theft and occurs when a hacker accesses an open, existing account like an email account, online banking account, credit card number or social media profile. Identity takeover is the more complex (and more stress-inducing) form of identity theft. With identity takeover, a scammer gains access to information such as a social security number that allows him or her to open new accounts in your name without your knowledge. Often, a scammer will have obtained your social security number and used it to open a new credit card account or even to pay for doctor’s visits.
While many victims of identity theft don’t suffer from financial loss due to strong consumer protection laws, it’s still a time-consuming and emotionally draining experience. If you believe you are a victim of identity fraud, the article recommends you contact the credit bureaus to obtain credit reports, place a fraud alert and if you think you are a victim, create an identity theft report.
That process can take months, however, so an ounce of prevention can be worth a pound of cure. We can’t make ourselves 100% safe since we rely on banks and other financial institutions to protect our information as well, but there are some steps we can take to minimize our vulnerability to identity theft.
- Avoid sharing your social security number. Even at a hospital or doctor’s office, you can often avoid using your social security number. The less you use it, the less likely it is someone will be able to steal it.
- Use a home computer and anti-virus software to access online banking. Wi-fi networks are often less secure, especially public wi-fi, so it’s always best to do your online banking at home on a secure network on a computer with anti-virus protection.
- Don’t open attachments or click on links from an unknown sender. Whether it be a text message from a strange number or an email address that just doesn’t seem quite right, when in doubt, don’t click. It’s always safest to just delete an email or text if you’re unsure who sent it. If you think you know who it is, contact that person or institution to check. Some companies even respond to tweets about suspicious emails if consumers have a question!
- The IRS and most major corporations won’t cold call you. If you get a phone call from the IRS, Microsoft, or another big-name company requesting personal or payment information, just hang up. The IRS doesn’t initiate phone calls like that, and big companies like Microsoft have enough to do with the customers calling them without trying to call you. If you’re unsure, hang up.
- Consider a credit freeze. If you know you won’t be opening up new accounts for a while, you can place a credit freeze on your credit report with Equifax, Experian and TransUnion (the three major credit bureaus). This makes it more difficult for an identity thief to open a new account in your name.
- Don’t share personal information, even with family and friends. We’ve all had experiences where someone has betrayed a trust. It might be something little or it could have devastating effects. Fraud often comes from people we thought we could trust. You can reduce your risk of fraud and identity theft by simply keeping your personal information personal.
As a general rule, identity theft only gets worse the longer it goes on. Credit monitoring services can help you keep tabs on your existing accounts and alert you when new ones are opened. You can check once a year for free, use a free monitoring service like Credit Karma, or you can pay to monitor all three of the major bureaus. Some services do it for as little as $9.99 per month!
The repercussions of not catching it early can be severe. If you lose an ATM or debit card and report it within two business days, your losses are capped at $50. If you report it in less than 60 days, your losses are capped at $500. If you wait any longer than that, however, your losses won’t be capped and you could be on the hook for significant amounts.
A lost or stolen credit card is usually easier: report it to your card issuer and you will usually have all fraudulent charges forgiven and the issuer will send you a new card.
If you believe you are a victim of identity takeover, the federal government provides all the information you should need at IdentityTheft.gov. It explains all the steps you need to take.
Identity theft is an increasing problem in our ever-more-digital world. Learn now how to take steps to protect your accounts and identity so you’re less likely to fall victim later.
Reference: Next Avenue (September 14, 2016) “Identity Theft: How to Protect Yourself or Resolve It”