How identity theft can ruin your life, and 6 ways to protect against it

Betty Q. Hixson

Time was when you worried that someone might go through your rubbish bins, find a letter with your name and address on it and use it to steal your identity. And that’s why the privacy conscious still shred any paper with personal details before recycling it.

These days, there’s a far easier way to find personal information: just look online. All a criminal needs is a laptop and an internet connection.

Once your data is online it’s extremely hard to keep it private. When you buy products, you have to enter your name, address and payment details. You hope that the company you’re purchasing from has strong security and adheres to GDPR, and the other rules around the world that relate to PII (personally identifiable information).

But as we all know, even the biggest companies can be hacked. From Adobe and Dropbox to Facebook, Yahoo and LinkedIn: they have all suffered breaches where customer data was leaked in one form or another.

Usually that data is sold on the ‘dark web’ to the highest bidder, and whoever buys it will most likely try and use any associated payment methods to empty your bank account.

However, it isn’t only your savings at risk. Identity theft can cause you a whole world of problems. Armed with enough information about you, criminals can assume your identity, open bank accounts, take out credit cards and use them all fraudulently. They could even get a job under your identity, fail to pay tax (or submit fake tax returns to get a refund) and leave you footing a large bill, even though you’re innocent.

The first time you’re likely to find out that your identity has been stolen is when letters start arriving in the post demanding unpaid credit card bills, to pay tax bills or other outstanding payments. The police may even come knocking if a crime has been committed in your name.

Naturally, this causes considerable stress, and it can be hard to prove that you’re not responsible for any of it, and that your identity was stolen.

There can be lasting effects, from damage to your credit rating, an inability to get insurance, a mortgage or other financial products.

Potentially just as damaging is if a hacker manages to log into any of your email or social media accounts. They can then use your online identity to scam your contacts: your friends and family and could even post damaging messages or images on your social media feeds, and that could even put your job in jeopardy.

How to prevent identity theft

Clearly, much of this is unlikely and is the worst case scenario. But this stuff does happen with alarming frequency. Yet there are things you can do to help protect your identity.

  1. Don’t reuse passwords. It’s convenient, but it is a massive security risk. Instead, use a password manager to remember unique passwords for each online account
  2. Don’t hand your data over to any old website. Although even reputable companies can get hacked, one way you can help yourself is by being careful where you enter your personal information and choosing not to save payment details on websites. Again, it’s less convenient but more secure.
  3. Keep a close eye on your bank accounts and other online accounts to make sure there are no purchases or payments that you can’t account for.
  4. Use an identity protection service. These monitor the dark web for your email address, card details and other information. If a match is ever found, you’ll get a notification so you can cancel any credit cards, change passwords and inform your bank that there might be a problem. They can freeze cards and accounts, and may reimburse you for loss that wasn’t your fault.
  5. Use two-factor authentication wherever it is offered. Even if the second step is to send you a one-time passcode via SMS, that’s still better than nothing (though even that can be hacked).
  6. Watch out for phishing scams which try to convince you to hand over personal details, either over the phone or on a fake website. Be vigilant and learn how to spot the signs, such as incorrect website addresses and cold callers asking for your passwords, or card number and PIN.

When it comes to identity protection services, choose wisely and be sure you’re handing your data (for monitoring) to a trustworthy company. You’ll find ID protection offered as part of some security software packages, along with antivirus, from companies such as McAfee and Norton.

There are others, such as Equifax and Experian.

Some include ID theft insurance, which can reimburse you for financial loss, (including lost wages for time spent off work) as well as pay for other costs you’ve incurred.

You can check any number of email addresses to see if they have been included in previous breaches using the Have I Been Pwned? website.

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