According to Experian, 15.4 million people fell victim to identity theft in 2016, losing more than $16 billion. Many fell for scams. Some had sensitive documents stolen from their mailbox that set things in motion. Still, others suffered due to the actions of professional hackers. There are so many different ways that you could’ve been targeted that it may be impossible to know where the breach started. Whatever its origin, typically, you don’t even know that you’re identity has been compromised until the negative effects have reached a catastrophic level.
How to know if you’ve been the victim of identity theft
Certain red flags may indicate that you’re a victim of identity theft; you just have to know where to look.
Check Your Statements
- You receive bills or charges on your statements for items you never purchased.
- You see $1 or $2 charges on your credit or debit card statements. Thieves do this before making large purchases to make sure the account is active.
Check Your Credit Report
- You see strange addresses on your credit report for places you’ve never lived.
- You see hard inquiries on your credit report, but you haven’t applied for credit. Hard inquiries appear when you apply for credit, and they require your permission, whereas soft inquiries don’t require permission and are usually for employment background checks or used for pre-approved credit card or insurance offers.
- You find accounts listed on your credit report that you don’t recognize.
Check Your Mail
- You stop receiving bills. This could mean that someone changed your mailing address to one he or she has access to.
- You start receiving catalogs and mailers for expensive items. Companies may be soliciting you because someone purchased an expensive item recently using your identity.
- You receive a rejection in the mail for credit you didn’t apply for.
Check Your Tax Refund
- The IRS rejects your tax return because it shows as already filed. This could mean that someone else has obtained your social security number and filed a return in your name.
- You receive a refund in the mail before you’ve even filed your taxes. Someone with access to your mail could be hoping to intercept a check that you didn’t know was coming.
- You don’t receive your tax refund.
Check Your Messages
- You’re rejected for credit but have a stellar history.
- You get a PIN or reset code via text that you didn’t ask for. Someone could be trying to log in to one of your accounts.
- You employer informs you of a breach. Some thieves will try to file for unemployment benefits in your name. They tend to target people who’ve left a job recently and are about to start a new one.
- You’ve been paying your bills but receive calls from debt collectors.
There are so many ways that you’re vulnerable to identity theft that it may seem like an impossible battle, but it’s a battle you can win. Take a proactive approach and you can minimize the risk of being a victim of identity theft. You just need to know where to start.
How to help prevent identity theft
The real issue with identity theft occurs when someone gets ahold of your social security number. However, by amassing personal information about you, someone can easily gain access to your account passwords and wreak all kind of havoc in your life. So, it’s important to know what kind of measures to take in order to keep your identity and your finances firmly under your own control.
Keep Your Information Private
- Don’t give any personal or financial information via phone, text, or email. If you receive a request for information, call the company directly with the number on your statement.
- Think before you post. We all love sharing news on social media, but you should consider how the info can be used before you post it. You may want to tell your family and friends the good news that you’re starting a new job or going on vacation, but thieves are looking for this stuff. Don’t post vacation photos until you’ve returned from your trip. Think twice about filling out those popular “get to know you” lists that ask for information often used in security questions, such as the name of your best friend or your favorite teacher in high school. Even if you have your security settings to include only your friends, you should always err on the side of caution and assume that others may be seeing it.
- Protect your social security number at all costs. Don’t give this out unless it’s absolutely necessary. Do NOT keep your social security card in your wallet or purse; secure it at home. Do NOT have it printed on your driver’s license or any ID that you keep with you.
- Don’t write checks. Your routing number and checking account number are right there on every check. Use your debit card instead and leave the checks at home.
Keep Your Computer Secure
- Protect your computer with a password and good firewall and security software.
- Don’t “friend” someone on social media that you don’t know.
- Use strong passwords for all of your accounts, and don’t use the same passwords for accounts.
- Don’t use public Wi-Fi, which leaves you open to hackers.
- If you shop online, make sure it’s through a legitimate site. Never store your info on a shopping website. Hackers are constantly trying to hack in and get credit card numbers.
Keep Mail Deliveries to a Minimum
- Have your tax refund transmitted directly to your bank instead of a check that sits in your mailbox.
- Go paperless. If your bills aren’t in your mailbox, then no one can steal them.
- Know your bill schedule. If you miss a statement, call your bank or the credit card company right away.
- Opt out of credit card offers that could be stolen from your mailbox. If you call 1-888-5-OPT-OUT (1-888-567-8688) or visit www.optoutprescreen.com, you can opt out for five years, and if you want to opt out permanently, fill out the Permanent Opt-Out Election form.
Keep a Watchful Eye
- Be vigilant. Make sure that you check every credit card and bank statement for unusual activity or unrecognizable charges.
- Stealing mail is still a popular way for thieves to gain access to your accounts. Consider investing in a P.O. Box.
- Watch for “skimmers,” devices placed over a card reader at an ATM or gas station that mimics it in order to obtain your card information. If you see one, alert the facility immediately or call the police.
- Check your credit reports regularly. You can get one free each year from each of the three major credit-reporting agencies: TransUnion, Experian, and Equifax. They’re not expensive, though, so it doesn’t hurt to get them several times a year.
If you believe that you’ve been a victim of identity theft, call your bank and credit issuers immediately so they can close the accounts and minimize damage. Change all your passwords and get copies of your credit reports to identify fraudulent accounts. File a police report and file a complaint with the FTC. Proving identity theft is a long and complicated process, so make sure that you take detailed records of all your actions, phone calls, and discussions.
Don’t wait for identity theft to happen to you!