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Identity Theft: What It is, How to Prevent It, Warning Signs and Tips

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Identity Theft: What Is, How to Avoid It, Warning Signs and Tips

ID theft occurs the act of posing as you, typically in order to get money. Be aware of these warning indications and preventive tips.

By Bev O’Shea personal finance writer | MSN Money,, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Orlando Sentinel Bev O’Shea is a former NerdWallet authority on consumer credit, scams and identity theft. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Auburn University and a master’s in education from Georgia State University. Before joining NerdWallet, she worked for daily newspapers, MSN Money and Her work has appeared throughout the world in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, MarketWatch, USA Today, MSN Money and other publications. Twitter: @BeverlyOShea.

7 February 2023

Edited by Kathy Hinson Lead Assigning Editor Personal financial, credit scoring, managing money and debt Kathy Hinson leads the core personal finance team at NerdWallet. Previously, she spent 18 years at The Oregonian in Portland in capacities such as chief of the copy desk and team director of design and editing. Her previous experience includes copy and news editing for many Southern California newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. She received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications at Iowa’s University of Iowa.

A majority of the products we feature come from our partners, who pay us. This influences which products we write about and the location and manner in which the product is featured on the page. But, it doesn’t affect our assessments. Our views are our own. Here’s a list and .

Identity theft is when someone uses your personal information — the name of your child, Social Security number, birth date and so on. — to impersonate you, usually using the information to steal from you. The Federal Trade Commission received 1.43 million identity theft complaints from customers in 2021.

Here’s what you need to be aware of in order to lessen the chances that you’ll be a target, look out for warning signs and then take action to reduce the damage.

Is identity theft a crime?

Identity theft occurs when someone uses your personal information to appear as you or take your money. Identity thieves could take your investment and bank accounts, create accounts with new lines of credit, get utility service, steal taxes, utilize your insurance information to get medical treatment, or provide police your name and address in the event of their arrest.

Frequent data breaches mean your information may already be compromised. In today’s world it’s important to take precautions to stop malicious actors from using your personal data and ruining your financial situation.

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7 types of identity theft as well as warning signs

If a criminal is able to access your information, here are the most typical ways in which it can be exploited:

1. Identity theft through credit cards

The theft of your credit identity occurs when a criminal makes use of your personal information like birthdate or Social Security number, to make an application for an additional credit line.

Warning signs: You might observe a sudden increase in your credit scores or an account you don’t recognize on your credit reports. It is possible to receive debt collection notices or a judgment from the court against you. The best way to stop it is to block your credit.

2. Child identity theft

Criminals can apply for credit in that child’s name. Most of the time, it’s not noticed until the person who is victimized applies in college loans or other credit.

Alert signs: If you notice that your child receives offers for credit cards, or phone calls about debt collection or late payments, investigate. You can stop it.

3. Identity theft using fake identities

is when criminals make use of an array of identity information to construct a fictitious consumer with a Social Security number — often one of an unborn child or just fabricated which is not yet on the credit bureaus’ database and combining it with a name and address. They then apply for loans and credit cards, and often make payments for years as the credit limit increases. Then comes a “bust out,” in which the credit cards have been overloaded and criminals are gone.

Watch out for warning signs if you attempt to freeze your child’s credit and find that their Social Security number is already being used. Most of the time, it’s not discovered when the child applies to get student loans. It is not always preventable since sometimes, criminals can make up an unregistered Social Security number even before it’s assigned.

4. Taxpayer identity theft

Sometimes fraudsters use an Social Security number to file a tax return and steal you tax refund or credit.

Alert signs: You might be unable to e-file since someone else has filed under that Social Security number, you get an IRS notice or letter referencing some activity you knew nothing about or IRS records suggest you worked for an employer that you do not. It can be a deterrent to filing in your name, and some states offer 6-digit PINs for identity security (after a rigorous verification) with additional security.

5. Medical identity theft

Utilizing someone else’s name to get health care services is a form of medical identity theft. It’s particularly dangerous because it can result in the medical histories of two people being mixed up providing hospitals and doctors with wrong information as they are making health-related decisions.

Beware of warning signs: Claims or payments on your insurance declaration of benefits which you don’t acknowledge could indicate that someone is using your health benefits. If you’ve been a victim, you must inform your insurance company and also inform your health care professional to be sure information in your health care records is truly yours.

6. Takeover of a bank account

Criminals make use of personal information to gain access to your financial accounts. They then change passwords or addresses to ensure that you don’t have access.

Warning signs: An email, letter or text message from your financial institution that relates to an act (like changing your password or making an email changes) or transaction that you don’t recognize.

7. Identity theft and criminals

Criminal identity theft occurs when someone provides law enforcement officials with an address and name of another in the course of an investigation or arrest. It is usually done using fake identification, like fake drivers licenses.

Signs to be aware of: You could be arrested by a police officer due to reasons that are not clear to you, or be refused a job or promoted because of something you’ve found in a background check.

>Learn: What is in Canada?

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11 ways to avoid identity theft

You’re unlikely to find a safe method to avoid identity theft. Monitoring services only let you know when something is wrong. But there are 11 things that you could do in order to create harder for identity criminals.

1. Freeze your credit

With all the three credit agencies — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion The three major credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — have access your information, meaning that the new credit file cannot be opened. It’s free to freeze your credit, and then unfreeze it whenever you wish to open an account and it offers the best protection against an identity thief using your data to open a new bank account.

2. Protect your Social Security number.

Your Social Security number is the primary key to your personal data. Guard it as best you can. If you’re asked for your number, ask the reason why you need it and how it will be protected. Don’t take your card on your person. Keep it safe and shred any documents that contains the Social Security number.

3. Be aware of phishing scams and fraud

The calls they make appear to be from businesses or government agencies, and emails that appear to be legitimate may represent attempts at stealing your personal information. Request a callback, or send an email yourself using a trusted entity , like their official site, rather than answering a call or email. Beware of attachments, as Many contain malware.

4. Make sure you use strong passwords and include an authentication step

Use a password manager to create and store complex distinctive passwords that you can use for accounts. Don’t reuse passwords. By using an authenticator, you will reduce the risk. Don’t depend upon security checks to ensure that your accounts remain safe; your mother’s maiden name and your pet’s name aren’t hard to track down. Be mindful of the information you share so you don’t give away key data or clues about the way you respond to security questions.

5. Use alerts

A lot of financial institutions send text or email you when transactions are made to your accounts. Join so that you know when and where your credit cards are used and when there are withdrawals or deposits made to financial accounts, and much more.

6. Check your mail

Stolen mail is one of the easiest ways to get an identity theft. You can have your mail held in case you’re not in town. Think about a U.S. Postal Service-approved lockable mailbox. You can also sign up for via the USPS and receive an overview of your mail to tell if anything is missing.

7. Shred shred

The bank, credit card and investment statement that someone might find in your trash shouldn’t be there in first place. Shred junk mail, too, especially preapproved offers of credit.

8. Use the digital wallet

If you’re making payments on the internet or in a shop, use a digital wallet, an app containing secure, digital versions of debit and credit cards. It can be used to shop online or at a compatible checkout terminal. Transactions are encrypted and tokenized, which makes them safer. Furthermore, contactless transactions have fewer health risks.

9. Protect your mobile devices

. According to Javelin’s report just 48% of us routinely secure our smartphones. Utilize passwords on your digital devices. Make use of a banking app instead of a mobile web browser to manage your banking.

10. Check your credit reports regularly

The three main credit bureaus have been offering customers access to free credit reports each week through the end of 2023, accessible via . Verify that the accounts are reported correctly and be on the lookout for signs of fraud, like accounts that you aren’t familiar with. You can also sign up to receive alerts from NerdWallet to be alerted whenever there are any changes.

11. Monitor financial and medical statements

Review your financial statements. You must be aware of every transaction. Know due dates and call to check if you did not receive your anticipated invoice. Review “explanation of the benefits” statements to make sure that you understand the benefits offered to protect yourself from health fraud in the field of health care.

Be aware of how your credit score is assessed

See your free score and the variables that affect it, as well as insights into ways to continue building.

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10 ways identity theft happens

Here are some of the ways your personal data could be compromised:

1. Lost wallet

When your wallet is damaged or lost, somebody might be able to access all the data in it.

Don’t carry your Social Security card or more credit cards than you are using regularly, and don’t keep an inventory of passwords and Access codes inside your wallet.

Create photocopies of all your credit card, front and back, and store them in a safe place in order to contact the issuer in case you discover that your wallet or card has been stolen. Certain issuers let you temporarily “turn off” a lost card; with others, you have to cancel the card and then get another card issued.

2. Theft of the mailbox

Someone just receives your mail, or forwards your mail an address that is different, so that you suddenly cease receiving most mail.

When you sign up, you’ll receive an email with images of the things that need to be delivered to you , so you’ll be aware of items that are missing.

Pick a safe mailbox and return mail on time.

3. Using public Wi-Fi

Hackers may be able to detect what you are doing while using Wi-Fi that is free and public.

Do not use Wi-Fi in public areas for shopping, banking or other sensitive transactions.

If you want to connect to public Wi-Fi, use the virtual private network service to secure your connection.

4. Data breach

Hackers gain access to databases that hold sensitive information, such as during hacks like the Equifax credit bureau hack of 2017. Almost everyone is affected an .

Assume that your data is already out there and be sure to take appropriate security measures.

— unexpected changes can be a clue and you should read your the insurance and financial statements with care. Check your credit reports regularly especially for any inquiries from new accounts or from credit applications.

5. SIM card swap

This happens the time when an individual . It is possible that you will not receive texts and calls or receive notification that your mobile has been turned off.

Create a PIN password on your cellular account.

Think about using an authentication application for accounts with sensitive financial information.

6. Phishing or the spoofing of

Some fraudsters try to get you to disclose personal data, such as credit card numbers, Social Security numbers and banking information, by sending unofficial-looking emails. Spoofing is similar things with caller ID, to make the phone number appear to be that of a reputable company or agency.

Do not give out personal data in response to an email or phone call.

Find contact information from a trusted source such as the bank’s website. You can use it to confirm whether the phone call or email is genuine.

7. Skimming

Skimming involves obtaining credit card data, typically via a small device when the credit card is utilized in a brick-and-mortar store like a gas station or ATM.

Make use of cards that have chips, with added security.

Pay inside at the station, if you can, because skimming devices tend to be installed at payment sites that are not monitored.

Be alerted to fraudulent activity before it is too late by setting email or text alerts that let you know when your credit cards are being used. If you suspect that a card has been used without your authorization, call the issuer right away.

8. Scams on the phone

It could be that you’ve won something or even that you are at risk of being arrested. The person calling you claims to require your personal, bank or credit card information to verify your identity, or to determine where to deposit your money.

Don’t divulge personal information on the phone.

Pay attention to . The IRS for instance, does not initiate contact with taxpayers via telephone (or email or social media) to ask for personal or financial information and does not call for threats to arrest, or even lawsuits.

9. Over your shoulder

Fraudsters can learn a password just by watching your fingers while you enter it. The information on your credit card could be captured using your smartphone when you shop on the internet in a public space. The business could leave sensitive information where people are able to be able to see it.

Be aware of your surroundings.

Don’t place cards in areas where they can be seen.

Protect your hands when you key in code or passwords.

10. Malware

Opening an email attachment or visiting an infected website can install malicious software on your system, for example a keylogger. That does what it says — logs every keystroke and gives criminals access to passwords, account numbers and more.

Be wary of clicks on attachments and links in emails and about the websites you go to.

Make use of a password manager that lets you not type into your login credentials.

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How to report identity theft

is a one-stop shop for information and reporting identity theft. Use the website, which is run by the Federal Trade Commission, and follow its recommended steps to create a recovery plan. You might also have to contact your police department or the Postal Service and the credit bureaus. The IRS has a phone line to report identity theft, 800-908-4490, and a site.

You may also speak directly to the credit card issuer If your credit card was lost, stolen or used without your knowledge. If you suspect that somebody else took advantage of your health benefits, you should contact your health insurance company and think about making contact with the provider involved to ensure that another person’s health history isn’t in any way a part of your own.

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What happens if you report identity theft?

Reporting identity theft starts an investigation, and then the process of getting your name back. The exact procedure will be contingent on the kind of identity theft.

Credit card issuers generally replace the cards with ones with the same number, and you’re back to normal. Identity theft of taxpayers, or theft of benefits typically will take longer to resolve.

No matter which type or identity theft that you have experienced take detailed notes on conversations on the phone and keep copies of emails.

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What is the best identity theft protection service?

The Identity theft security services let the user know that their identifying data has been misused, or is at risk due to being disclosed as part of a data breach. If you are a victim of identity theft they may help you and pay you back for the costs in the process of cleaning up the mess and restoring your identity.

If you’re already doing all you can to safeguard your identity , or you feel that you’re not able to protect your identity You might want to consider an protection plan. They vary, but they all offer additional options to safeguard your privacy as well as other options. The most effective choice of paid services is one that works with your budget and gives you the protection you want.

Before you buy one, however, make sure you ensure that there’s nothing you’re making use of.

If you do decide to buy, NerdWallet has reviews of:

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Author bio Bev O’Shea was a credit reporter at NerdWallet. Her work has appeared on the New York Times, Washington Post, MarketWatch and elsewhere.

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