For the average American, tales of identity theft are as familiar as holiday table conversation. A credit card mysteriously used in a country overseas. A compromised debit card and a drained checking account. Or perhaps you’re a consumer who went to make a major purchase like a car or home, only to find your credit report in an inexplicable state of disarray.
While fraudsters find new ways every day to steal identities, you don’t have to feel like you can’t fight back. A good offense is the best defense for protecting your identity.
Millions of American Affected by Identity Theft Every Year
According to a 2021 poll by Debt.com, four in 10 people reported being victims of identity theft. While that might leave room for many people to say, “Oh, it won’t happen to me,” new figures on rising instances of identity theft bring cause for alarm.
According to a February 2021 report from the Federal Trade Commission, Americans reported losing $3.3 billion to fraud in 2020–a significant jump from the $1.8 billion reported in 2019. The number of Americans reporting losing money to fraud is also on the rise, with 34% of 2020 fraud reports citing loss of money, versus 23% in 2019.
In 2021, rising identity theft cases came from an unlikely source: government benefits. Naftali Harris, co-founder and CEO of SentiLink, a firm specializing in fraud schemes, tactics and identity verification, says “Much of this is due to fraudsters taking advantage of weakly secured unemployment insurance programs [and fraudsters] stealing the identities of citizens and claiming benefits in their name,” he says.
Data from the FTC shows that consumers reported 40 times more benefits fraud to the FTC in Q1 2021 than Q1 2020, likely linked to the increase in unemployment filings due to pandemic shutdowns and job market stresses.
Who Is Most Vulnerable to Identity Theft?
Simply having a Social Security number makes you at-risk for identity fraud, yet specific populations are more vulnerable to identity breaches.
- Children: Thieves particularly like children because they can use their Social Security numbers to create clean credit profiles for someone with a bad credit history or looking to open fraudulent accounts. Family members are often the offenders since they may have access to a child’s Social Security number.
- Seniors: As they’re often less tech-savvy than younger folks, seniors are more likely to fall prey to internet phishing and telephone scams.
- Social media users: Those prolific on social media have vast amounts of identifying information online, making them easy targets for resourceful fraudsters. For example, many people who were excited to get their Covid-19 vaccine posted photos of their vaccine cards online, which contain lots of identifying personal information, including your full name and date of birth.
- Military: When active-duty military are deployed, they’re less likely to notice anything awry in their credit reports, and frequent relocation means their personal information gets shared with greater frequency.
10 Steps to Take to Help Protect Your Identity
While there’s no guarantee that your identity won’t be stolen, the steps below can help you take immediate action to make your personal and financial information more secure.
- Check your credit reports. It’s easy to get a free weekly copy of your credit report from all three credit bureaus. Checking your credit can help you keep an eye out for fraudulent activity like new credit cards or loans and inquiries you don’t recognize.
- Freeze your credit reports. Freezing your credit reports makes it impossible for new accounts to be opened in your name unless you remove the freeze. Temporarily lifting or completely removing a freeze can be done online with each of the credit bureaus using a password or PIN assigned during the initial freeze.
- Use a password manager. Storing all those passwords in your browser can leave them vulnerable to malware and other hacks. Password managers offer an encrypted way to store your private login information so that it’s both easily accessible (to you) and hard to access by anyone else. The most popular password managers are fee-based services available by subscription.
- Put password or biometric protection on your devices. In 2018, Kaspersky Labs found that 52 percent of people don’t password-protect their phones. Turning on password or biometric identification (like fingerprints or facial recognition) can prevent a thief from accessing personal information on your phone.
- Avoid using public WiFi. Free public WiFi can seem like a score, but open networks make it easy for scammers to connect to your devices. Avoid accessing your financial accounts over unsecured public WiFi connections.
- Shred your documents. Bank statements, anything with your Social Security number, old credit cards–they’re all delicious finds in your trash for identity thieves. You can purchase a cross-cut or micro-cut shredder (the most secure) or stay on the lookout for community shredding events.
- Invest in security software. Antivirus and malware software can help you detect attempts to access your personal information by resourceful online scammers and many times, neutralize those threats. Annual fees can range from $35-$100.
- Be a bit less social. If you’re on social media, enable the strongest security measures available on your accounts. For example, these tips from Facebook can help you quickly assess and protect your account. Additionally, be cautious about the information you make public, like your full name, city of residence, employer and birth date.
- Sign up for free credit monitoring. Companies like Capital One and Discover offer free credit monitoring to their cardholders. You can also use free monitoring tools available from many of the credit bureaus or Credit Karma, which provides free credit monitoring of your Equifax and TransUnion credit reports.
- Check for data leaks online. There’s an easy way to see if your data’s been compromised or found on the dark web: ask the internet. Sites like F-Secure and have i been pwned? are free and easy–just enter your email address. If you find an account that’s been compromised, you can easily reset your password and see if the website offers two-factor authentication to help further secure your account.
Should I Pay for Identity Protection?
If you’re considering paying for identity protection, there are many companies ready to offer a subscription. The best identity theft protection services come with added perks, like help resolving identity theft instances and insurance up to $1 million if your identity is compromised.
However, it’s difficult to justify the cost with all the free tools available from reputable companies like Experian, Credit Karma, and various credit card issuers. If you want the convenience of a paid subscription and added bells and whistles, you might find a paid identity monitoring service makes sense.
The Bottom Line on Protecting Your Identity
As Patrick Simasko, elder law attorney and financial advisor at Simasko Law can tell you, having your identity stolen is a nightmare. But a bit of vigilance can help you manage the fallout.
“If your identity is stolen, hopefully you find out sooner rather than later,” he says. “The longer stolen identity goes undetected, the harder it is to fix the problem.”
Being proactive and taking preventative measures to keep your information secure today can help you avoid the hassles of trying to recover from identity theft later. Simasko says consumers often have little recourse because of the widespread nature of fraud.
“Trying to find and prosecute these crooks is next to impossible because the criminal may live in an entirely different state or country,” he says. So do what you can to keep your information secure today. It’ll save you from tomorrow’s headaches that fraudsters are quite happy to cause.
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