Identity theft is a problem that affects millions of Americans every year. While the number of people who fall victim to identity theft can be hard to calculate, reports by various sources – from government agencies like the Bureau of Justice Statistics to research firms like Javelin Strategy & Research to companies like Bankrate – suggest that some types of identity theft could affect anywhere between 5% to 10% of the population. This might seem small, but it’s important to keep in mind that identity theft costs billions of dollars annually, which makes it a big problem. What’s worse, identity theft can refer to a wide range of behaviors, some of which are hard to quantify and lack data. To help you understand not only how identity theft can impact you, but also how to protect yourself from some of the common forms of identity theft, we break down five forms of identity theft, how to protect yourself from each form and what to do if you fall victim.
Financial identity theft
Generally, financial identity theft is what most people are referring to when they talk about identity theft. This type of identity theft involves fraudsters using your identity and financial standing to open up new accounts and services — credit cards, loans, bank accounts and even tax refunds — in your name. While other types of identity theft might involve usage of your social security number, it’s not required to successfully commit those types. On the other hand, financial identity theft almost solely relies on your social security number, as it’s an essential piece of your identity that someone needs to open an account in your name. As such, if you find yourself the victim of this type of identity theft, you can assume your social security number has been compromised.
How to protect yourself: The easiest way to protect yourself from financial identity theft is to properly maintain and dispose of any documents with personal information on them, especially if they contain your social security number. Similarly, you’ll want to make sure you avoid making these security mistakes in your everyday life, like sharing your social security number or other personal information over the phone in public and not checking a URL for HTTPS encryption before you sign into your social media, banking or any other online account. Finally, you should check your credit reports and scores as frequently as possible and review them for potentially fraudulent accounts.
What to do if you fall victim: If you spot any unfamiliar accounts on your credit reports, be sure to contact the three credit bureaus to dispute the accounts and follow the steps detailed by the Federal Trade Commission. With regards to tax identity theft, you’ll want to notify the IRS immediately after finding out your identity was misused (although they may be the ones to alert you, as was the case when our editor fell victim to tax identity theft) and take the necessary restoration steps.
Banking identity theft
Along with financial identity theft, banking identity theft is another portion of what people traditionally consider identity theft. It refers to any unauthorized access to a victim’s existing funds and accounts at financial institution, like a credit card, debit card, bank account and etc. It can happen if your debit or credit card number is stolen through a data breach, skimmer or any other way your financial information is leaked.
How to protect yourself: Because there are different approaches that fraudsters can use to get access to your money, you’ll need to be cautious on several fronts. The first and easiest way to spot this theft is to monitor your bank account or credit card activity and report any fraudulent transactions to your bank as soon as you spot them. Next, when accessing your bank account online, make sure you have a strong password and use two-factor authentication if your bank offers it. Also, be sure to avoid clicking on links sent to you via email by your bank or any other individual, as they may be phishing attempts. If you ever need to visit your bank’s website, make sure you manually type in your bank’s URL in the address bar every time you log in and confirm the URL starts with HTTPS before you login. Finally, when shopping online, follow these cybersecurity tips to ensure your information stays safe.
What to do if you fall victim: If your credit or debt card has been stolen or money has been taken from your bank account, you’ll want to contact your bank or financial institution immediately to report the fraud. Your bank has processes and policies, like $0 fraud liability, to deal with fraud and the customer service representative you speak with should detail any necessary steps that you’ll have to take to alleviate the fraud.
Medical identity theft
Medical identity theft is something we’ve talked about quite a bit, especially after the Anthem breach in 2015. This type of identity theft occurs when someone uses your identity to receive medical treatments or services in your name. This can not only mess up your medical record (and thus your quality of health care), but it can result in medical bills for treatments or services you never received.
How to protect yourself: Medical identity theft can take place through usage of your social security number or your medical record information. The only way to catch it is to regularly take a look at statements from your insurance company, such as your Explanation of Benefits, and report any services that you don’t remember receiving. On top of that, you’ll want to make sure you safeguard your medical and insurance information, just as you do with your social security card, by storing medical paperwork in a safe place in your home and being wary of “free” medical services, as they may be identity thieves posing as doctors or other medical professionals hoping to steal your information. While these steps are helpful, keep in mind that the growing number of data breaches in the medical arena makes things a little more challenging, as your information may be leaked by your insurance provider or doctor’s office.
What to do if you fall victim: If you become the victim of medical identity theft, you should file a police report and let your insurance provider know immediately so you can begin the process of disputing any bills in your name. You might also want to contact your doctor in case information in your medical record has been changed as a result of the identity theft. The FTC has more information about medical identity theft, including how to detect it, how to correct mistakes in your medical record and more.
Social media identity theft
Social media identity theft happens when your name or likeness is either imitated or hijacked online. This can be the result of someone actually hacking your accounts or someone creating duplicate accounts which claim to be yours. When compared to other types of identity theft on this list, this might seem to be more innocuous, but it can have serious consequences. First, if any of your accounts are hacked, the perpetrator(s) could have the means to reverse-engineer their way into any of your other, non-social media accounts – this is especially true if you reuse passwords. Second, everyone from employers to insurance companies use social media to identify (and sometimes judge) individuals. Having someone pretend to be you online could be disastrous, not just for your existing relationships, as the hacker may attempt to scam your online friends, but also for future personal and professional opportunities.
How to protect yourself: Good cybersecurity habits are key in preventing this type of theft. Kicking off these habits is changing your online passwords regularly, opting for strong passwords that do not follow pop references. Next, make sure you don’t overshare on social media. Finally, check in on your social media privacy settings regularly, as these sites tend to change things frequently, which can leave you exposed.
What to do if you fall victim: The same steps for preventing social media identity theft apply to fighting it. Make sure to change your passwords and security questions if you think you’ve been hacked. Even if your account wasn’t hacked, it’s important that you report the user who is imitating you or contact customer support for the social media service you’re using. Also be sure to check your privacy settings, as the imitator likely got your information from posts you shared publicly.
Criminal identity theft
Criminal identity theft is when your name and identity are implicated in a crime because your identity was used by someone who committed a crime. This type of identity theft doesn’t necessarily require your social security number, as any aspect of your identity – your name, your address or your picture on a stolen or doctored photo ID – can be used to associate you with a crime you didn’t commit. Although not as common or widely discussed as more forms of identity theft involving credit or financial fraud, criminal identity is arguably worse. Unlike your credit or finances, you can’t rebuild your good name and clean legal record very easily – in the eyes of the law and society, you’re either a criminal or you aren’t. If you’re a victim of this type of identity theft, you’ll have to fight to prove your innocence, while experiencing the social and legal repercussions that come with being deemed a criminal.
How to protect yourself: As far as preventing criminal identity theft, the same steps that protect you from traditional identity theft will go far in protecting you from criminal identity theft. This means managing your paper documents properly and being selective with who you share personal information. If you move, make sure you verify your address with the post office and check all your mail promptly, as “junk mail” you receive may be a sign that you’ve fallen victim to this crime. When it comes time to dispose of your mail, you should invest in a cross-cut shredder to thoroughly eliminate the possibility of someone dumpster diving and walking away with important information. Finally, when talking to officials and professionals, especially over the phone, only provide information on a need-to-know basis. It should be noted that identity theft protection services can also help you combat criminal identity theft because a number of these services monitor public records and alert you if anything appears in your name.
What to do if you fall victim: Should you actually become a victim, the only way to combat criminal identity theft is to work with a lawyer to clear your name. That said, your state might have resources that can help you with this. For example, states like New Mexico and Virginia have what’s known as an Identity Theft Passport Program designed to help substantiate your identity after you’ve become a fraud victim. You can contact your state’s attorney general to see what you options are.
Identity theft is a vast and changing landscape of the criminal world. For more information about it and protecting yourself, keep reading our identity theft protection blog.