How Do I Protect My Accounts from Identity Theft?

Identity theft is a real problem and victims can spend a long time trying to undo its damage. It is up to everyone to guard their personal information, which means developing strong online and offline habits that protect data. Monitoring financial, e-commerce and other accounts can also help nip identity theft in the bud.

Identity theft is a crime in which someone uses your personal information, such as your name, birth date or Social Security number, to commit fraud. Depending on the form it takes, identity theft can result in financial problems, difficulties with obtaining healthcare and even possible criminal repercussions.

Identity thieves find ways to get your personal information and then use that information to do things like:

  • Open bank, credit card and investment accounts using your financial and credit history
  • Purchase goods and services without intending to pay for them
  • Commit various types of mortgage fraud
  • Obtain medical care using your medical history or insurance information
  • Apply for jobs using your academic and professional credentials
  • Apply for government benefits in your name
  • Provide your information to law enforcement officials after being ticketed or arrested

Fortunately, there are several ways that you can protect yourself and your family against identity theft.

How Identity Theft Happens

Identity theft happens when the thief gets access to your personal information. Sadly, there have been cases in which friends and family members have used proximity and trust to get their victim's information. Examples include:

  • Parents opening credit card accounts using their children's Social Security numbers
  • Neighbors stealing mail and using personal information, such as account numbers and birthdates to steal your identity
  • Visitors to your home stealing or copying information from documents that you've left lying around

In other cases, identity thieves are strangers. These are individuals who have developed ways to get information from and about their victims through a variety of schemes, including:

  • Using malware to track your online activities and stealing usernames and passwords
  • Phishing schemes in which you are sent a text or email that asks you for private information
  • Creating fake websites or hacking existing websites and taking private information stored on servers
  • Stealing documents from your trash
  • Hacking unsecured Wi-Fi connections and downloading your data
  • Unscrupulous employees of companies that you patronize who use legitimately acquired information to target victims

Identity thieves also use a technique called "social engineering," in which they persuade other people, such as customer service representatives or medical office staff, to give them additional information or to provide them with access to your accounts or records. Often, these perpetrators already have some information about you, such as your Social Security number, an account or insurance number, or information about previous places of employment. They may pose as you when trying to get information, or as a member of your family, your physician, or your boss.

Consequences of Identity Theft

Consequences of identity theft can be significant for victims and include:

  • A damaged credit history, which can keep you from purchasing a home, getting a line of credit, getting a job, or renting an apartment.
  • Lawsuits from creditors that you have never heard of for merchandise or services that you never ordered or received.
  • Difficulty receiving appropriate medical care because your medical records include information regarding the identity thief. One example of medical identity theft would be somebody who uses your medical information to "shop" for drugs from physicians or emergency rooms. A record of drug-seeking behavior noted on your medical records could create delays in your getting pain relief if you are ever in need of it.
  • Medical insurance issues, such as the thief using your benefits without your knowledge. When you try to file a claim for your own care, or that of a family member, you are told that you have reached your maximum benefit amount.
  • Diverted payroll or benefit direct deposit payments.
  • Having your identity confused with someone who has been convicted of a crime.
  • Having someone take over the title of your home or other property.
  • Reputational damage as a result of someone stealing your identity or credentials in the workplace, academia or as a rental tenant.

Ways to Protect Yourself From Identity Theft

There are several things that you can do to protect yourself from identity theft. It should be noted, however, that these tactics are a household or family affair: Everyone living under your roof, or who has access to your personal information, should be on their guard against individuals who are trying to steal your information.

Develop Secure Online Habits

Many cases of identity theft start with poor online security habits. Here are some examples:

  • Using easy-to-guess passwords or the same passwords for multiple accounts. Services like LastPass can help you generate and manage complex passwords for all your accounts. Password managers, such as those on Google Chrome, can also make you aware if your passwords have been compromised.
  • Failing to use two-step authentication when available.
  • Don't click on links in suspicious emails or texts. When in doubt, use phone numbers provided to you by banks, businesses and insurance companies directly. For example, don't call a number sent to you in an email or text from someone purporting to be from your credit card company. Instead, call the number on your card or that is provided in your monthly statement.
  • Provide limited information to online merchants. Some banks now allow you to create "virtual cards" that can only be used once or with a single merchant, reducing the risk of the card number being stolen or used by someone without authorization.
  • Use a VPN when online and not at home.

Manage Paper Documents Carefully

Identity thieves are perfectly comfortable going through your trash or stealing your mail to get the information they need for their scams. Some identity thieves will even take your information from your home if given the opportunity. Here are some things you can do to protect your privacy:

  • Invest in a file cabinet or banker's box with hanging file folders. Keep documents that contain sensitive information organized and hidden away from prying eyes.
  • If you are expecting other people to be in your home, take some time to conceal sensitive information. For example, if you have a practice of putting utility or credit card bills on your refrigerator so you remember to pay them, tuck them away before guests arrive.
  • Don't place intact documents that contain personal information in the trash. Paper shredders are affordable and easy to use. Get one.
  • Many office support stores, such as FedEx Office, offer document shredding services. This can be a good option if you have a backlog of documents that you no longer need, but don't have the time to shred yourself.
  • Purchase a secure, sturdy mailbox for your home. If you live in a multi-unit building and the landlord does not provide secure mailboxes, consider getting a post office box or a private mailbox in a secure location.
  • if you move, don't rely entirely on USPS forwarding services. Instead, contact businesses directly and update your mailing address. You don't want your mail falling into the hands of neighbors or the people who move into your old home.

Check Accounts Regularly

Identity thieves are able to operate because many people don't monitor how their information is being accessed and used. Unfortunately, many people don't realize that they have been victimized until they attempt to place a purchase, access medical care, apply for a job or find out that they are being sued by a creditor.

  • Fortunately, businesses, banks and insurance companies usually have robust online interfaces that let you check the status of your accounts and any activity that occurs on them. Check your bank, credit card and investment accounts daily, and schedule time each month to review your insurance accounts to see if there are any claims made on them.
  • Check email and social media accounts too. Gmail and Facebook, for example, allow you to check recent logins: If you see suspicious activity, you can change your password. You can also check your "Sent" email folder, as well as the trash, to see if someone has been using your account.
  • Other accounts to check include e-commerce websites. There is always the possibility that someone has hacked into your account and is using saved payment information to make purchases that are then shipped to another address or delivered electronically.

Monitor Credit Reports

In addition to monitoring bank, credit card and health insurance accounts, you should also check your credit reports from all three major bureaus, TransUnion, Experian and Equifax at least monthly. This will allow you to see if people have been attempting to open credit accounts in your name or if they have actually succeeded in doing so. You can also check to see if the balances on your current accounts or what you expect them to be. If not, you can use this information to contact your creditors, as well as the credit bureaus, so an investigation can be opened.

Final Word

Identity theft is a growing problem and while there are services like LifeLock that can help you manage these concerns, you are ultimately responsible for controlling your personal information and developing habits that protect your data from criminals.

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