Identity theft can happen to anyone, and it can happen a number of ways. In 2018, there were three million fraud cases in the United States and over four hundred thousand cases of identity theft. In the age of online purchases, online banking, and even virtual tax returns, the internet poses the greatest threat for having personal information compromised. The most common methods of identity theft are data breaches, phishing attacks, unsafe internet connections, mail theft, and weak data protections. These methods all aim to accomplish the same thing – to gain enough of your personal information to steal your identity. If your identity is stolen, you can be harmed more than you might realize.
Identity theft can damage your credit score, result in an IRS audit, and create a complex mess that you’re left to clean up even if you discover the theft before much financial harm is done. You can become a victim of financial identity theft, tax identity theft, medical identity theft, and even employment identity theft, among other types. Financial identity theft involves the use of your personal information to access your bank account or credit cards to make purchases or even obtain a new credit card. Tax identity theft happens when your personal information is compromised for the purpose of filing a tax return and stealing the refund. The list goes on and on, but the bottom line is that you need to take steps in order to protect your information.
While there are a number of identity theft protection services, it’s best to take steps to protect yourself even if using these services. While they reduce the risk that your identity will be stolen, they do not and cannot eliminate the risk. Store your personal information in a secure place such as a safe or locked filing cabinet, and do not store your Social Security card in your wallet. Only give out your SSN when it is absolutely necessary. Do not share your personal information online. Collect your mail regularly and shred documents before you throw them out in order to prevent someone from obtaining physical documents containing your personal information. Check your bank statements regularly and inquire about any charges you do not recognize. Use a fraud protection system from your bank. Many banks have built-in or opt-in fraud protection programs that will temporarily freeze your bank account if a suspicious purchase or withdrawal is detected.
The more sophisticated threats online will require equally sophisticated measures to protect your personal information. Do not use unsecured wifi connections (connections without a password). Anyone can use these networks and once your device is connected to them, someone else may be able to access personal information on your device from that connection. Use various, complex passwords for the websites you visit in order to help protect against data breaches. When a company’s data is compromised, your username, password, and all personal information stored on that company’s website is also compromised.
Use an anti-virus program and firewall on your computer and all other devices you use to access sensitive information. Do not click on suspicious links from spam emails or on websites. These links often contain viruses that can compromise personal information from your computer, including any information you have accessed on that computer (bank account information, address, name, phone number, etc.). Be cautious of entering login information on seemingly familiar websites if you were redirected there from somewhere else. There are many copy-cat login pages that attempt to steal your login information and subsequently any personal information you have stored on that site. There are copy-cats for many prominent websites.
Finally, it’s always a good idea to keep check of your credit reports. This can help you catch fraud before too much harm is done if you notice credit cards or other accounts that you did not open. If you have been the victim of identity theft or fraud, you should contact law enforcement immediately.