Identity Theft: What Is It and How to Protect Your Information
According to both public and private sources, about 15 million people who live in the United States of America experience some form of identity theft that results in approximately $50 billion in financial losses each year.
If you break down the numbers, this means that about 7% of all adults in the country have had their identity abused with each case accounting for about $3,500 in losses.
Many identity theft cases are the result of hacking personal information databases under the control of corporations, federal, state and local governments, or financial entities like banks, and credit authorization and reporting services. Just recently as many as 143 million consumers in the United States were victims of a computer hack of Equifax, a company that analyzes business-related data on over 820 million consumers and more than 91 million businesses worldwide.
Criminal organizations, foreign governments, and individuals perform the elaborate hacks to steal personal information. If they don’t use it, then they put it into the dark web, a network of Internet sites that require special software, configuration or authorization to gain entry. People with nefarious intent use the dark web to sell and purchase the personal information. The data acquired is then used to steal a person’s identity gaining the perpetrator access to that person’s bank, credit card, and retirement accounts, government benefits, pensions and more. Once the culprit has access, he or she can steal the money in those accounts or make purchases using their credit. The result of this can lead to bankruptcy for the victim. Moreover, if the thief is arrested and gives the personal information of the victim of the identity heist, then that person could be recognized as a criminal causing all sorts of problems for the victim.
Although it may be the identify thefts resulting from computer hacks that gain the headlines of newspapers, magazines, news media, and other sources, basic, low-tech methods of personal information thefts also occur. These include stealing a wallet or purse, finding transaction receipts in trashcans, stealing mail, or even deceiving representatives of retail call centers to release personal data.
Methods of acquiring personal information don’t end there. Identity theft can also occur as a result of thefts of cell and landline phone service invoices; cable or satellite television service information; power, water, gas and electric service bills; Internet payment services; medical insurance, home mortgages and rental housing information; automobile, boat and other forms of financial loans; and, government benefits that can result in social security fraud.
Types Of Identity Theft
Child Identity Theft
A child’s Social Security Number can be stolen and used to apply for government benefits, open a bank and credit card account, apply for a loan or utility service, or rent an apartment or house. Check your child’s credit report for errors. In addition, schools may require personal information that a thief could obtain. Ask the school your child attends how they collect personal information, how they use and store it and whether they throw it away. Child identity theft could go undiscovered causing problems for the victim many years after the theft. As a result of the theft your child could be turned down for government benefits because they are already being paid to an account that uses his or her Social Security Number.
Tax Identify Theft
Also known as Social Security fraud, this type of identity theft involves someone stealing your Social Security Number for the purpose of filing a tax return to claim a refund that belongs to you. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) will contact you if they receive more than one tax return using the same Social Security number; if you owe more taxes, if there is a refund offset, if there is a collection action against you for a year you did not file a tax return, or if there are IRS records that show you were paid wages or other income from an employer for whom you did not work.
Medical Identity Theft
If your name, Social Security number or Medicare number is stolen, the thief could use it to submit a Medicare or other health insurer claim without your knowledge. This can cause a disruption of your healthcare.
How To Determine If Your Identity Has Been Stolen
You need to be proactive when it comes to identity theft. You can’t rely on someone to inform you. To ascertain if you are a victim you need to gather your bills, bank and retirement account statements, and medical statements and read them carefully to determine if:
- You are being billed for things you did not purchase
- Your bank account statement includes withdrawals you did not make
- Your bills or bank account information has an address change that you did not make
- Bills that you expect to receive monthly have stopped coming
Next, get a hold of your credit report. You are entitled to one free report from each of the credit reporting services. To order your report call the Annual Credit Report at 1-877-322-8228.
When you order your credit report you will be asked several questions concerning your personal information including:
- Your Address
- Social Security Number
- Birth Date
Provide only the last four digits of your Social Security Number. You can also choose from which credit report company your receive a report.
How To Report Identity Theft
If you discover that you are a victim of Identity Theft, then report it to:
Credit Reporting Services
- EquiFax (1-800-525-6285)
- Experian (1-888-397-3742)
- TransUnion (1-800-680-7289)
Federal Government Offices
- The Federal Trade Commission (1-877-438-4338 / 1-866-653-4261 (TTY))
- The U.S. Department of Justice (email USTP.Bankruptcy.Fraud@usdoj.gov)
- U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (1-800-732-0330)
- U.S. Department of State to report a lost or stolen passport (1-877-487-2778 or 1-888-874-7793 (TDD/TTY))
- Social Security Administration and type “Fraud” in the search box (1-800-269-0271 or 1-866-501-2101 (TTY))
- Internal Revenue Service (1-800-908-4490)
- Your Cable Provider
- Your Bank
- Your Health Insurance Provider
- Your Landline and Mobile Phone Provider
- Credit Card Companies
- Any retail stores where you’ve used your credit cards
Local Businesses and Other Companies
Identity Theft Protection
Just as you need to be proactive to discover identity theft, you also need to be proactive to prevent it.
- Store your financial documents, Social Security and Medicare cards in a safe place
- Destroy old documents containing personal or medical information
- Remove mail from your mailbox as soon as possible
- Ask if you can provide another kind of identification other than your Social Security number
- Don’t provide personal information over the phone or via email
- Use more complex passwords
- Don’t respond to emails requesting personal information
- Don’t put personal information on a public computer, such as in a library
- Pay attention to your billing cycles. If a bill or financial statement is late, contact the sender
- Engage your computer or smartphone’s security features when visiting bank or other financial-related websites
- Install firewalls, anti-virus and virus-detection software on your home computer
In conclusion, it is up to you and you alone to ensure that thieves don’t have access to your personal data. Be mindful of the information you share, and monitor and protect it as best as you can.