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Identity Theft: What to Know and How to Protect Yourself

Mother and father playing with their baby


We live in an increasingly digital world. People use devices and technology to shop for everything from groceries and clothing to furniture and electronics. We sign in to multiple websites and apps to communicate and share photos with family and friends, manage personal and business finances, plan vacations, and everything in between. While increased accessibility helps make so many activities quick and convenient, having so much of our personal information online leaves us vulnerable to cyber criminals who are eager to steal and benefit from our personal information. As the multitude of online services has expanded, so has the rate of fraudsters engaging in identity theft.

Data breaches within major companies have exposed hundreds of millions of consumers to hackers. In 2020 alone, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) monitored almost 1.4 million complaints of identity theft, with over $3.3 billion stolen by identity thieves. Many scammers claimed to be officials from government departments and accessed victims’ pandemic unemployment benefits.

Cyber thieves who access one’s personally identifiable information (PII), such as birthdate, Social Security number, home address, driver’s license number, passport number and credit card or financial account information can use it to open new accounts, buy expensive items or pay their bills — and unsuspecting victims often won’t find out until weeks (or months) later. Often, it is only when (and IF) they closely read their account statements. The impact is not only the actual dollars stolen, but also hits to credit scores and time spent restoring security to one’s life and online footprint.

Identity thieves always evolve their tricks to disguise their efforts and access desirable information. They do “spoofing,” using phone numbers, or “phishing,” using email addresses, that look legitimate or seem connected to official agencies — such as the government, police or major companies from which you have likely made purchases. Variations may include sending voice or text messages or directing web surfers to websites for bogus products or services.

Credit cards are a bit safer than debit cards when it comes to fraud, as the Federal Fair Credit Billing Act protects consumers from liability in cases of credit card fraud over $50. However, as currency itself diversifies through the advent of cryptocurrency, some fraudsters are now demanding access to victims’ crypto accounts because it’s difficult to trace and helps them in evading law enforcement.

The age group most vulnerable to scammers is the elderly, as they are less likely to create strong online passwords and are less likely to be wary of prank callers posing as tax collectors or relatives purporting to be in dire financial straits. They also often provide extensive personal information to many doctors or caregivers, with access by many staff members at facilities.

But even those who consider themselves tech-savvy and invincible can fall prey to skilled scammers. Even a child’s information can be stolen, and parents may be unaware of that until many years later when trying to open or access accounts for them.

How to Avoid Identity Theft:

  1. Require a PIN or strong password to unlock devices and accounts, plus 2-step verification. Also, do not use the same password for multiple accounts.
  2. Always use updated security software (such as Norton) on your devices.
  3. Regularly sign in to online accounts to monitor transaction accuracy.
  4. Switch to paperless statements so there is less sensitive information in your mail.
  5. Put alerts on your financial accounts so you get reports for each transaction, or transactions exceeding a set dollar amount.
  6. Put a freeze on your credit report so others can’t open accounts in your name.
  7. Shred old documents, such as bank or credit union statements, tax forms and medical bills.
  8. File your tax returns early.
  9. Do not open emails, click on links or answer calls from suspicious addresses or numbers.
  10. Do not carry your Social Security card or documents including your SSN on them.
  11. Do not tell anyone your SSN by phone unless you are 100% sure who they are and why they’re asking for it.
  12. Do not use public Wi-Fi when making any financial transactions, such as online banking or shopping, or to check your email or browse social media.
  13. Do not leave personal information in your car, even if it is locked.
  14. Invest in an identity theft protection service (such as IdentityGuard or LifeLock) to monitor, detect and alert you about attacks on your identity or finances and reimburse you for losses.

If you are a victim of Identity Theft:

  1. Contact at least 1 of the 3 main credit bureaus: TransUnion, Experian, or Equifax.
  2. Report it to the FTC at www.identitytheft.gov or call 877 438 4338.

Your Turn: Which of these steps will you take to further secure your online identity?

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