Identity theft is a growing threat. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) received 650,572 reports of identity theft in 2019, a 46% increase from the previous year. The most common type of identity theft reported to the FTC was credit card new account fraud, up 88% from 2018.
With increasingly clever hackers and fraudsters out there — coupled with technology that makes you vulnerable — identity theft isn't an issue you want to ignore.
The good news? There are steps you can take to help reduce your risk of attack, says Protective's Special Investigative Unit and Anti-money Laundering Manager Ryan Schwoebel. A former U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service special agent and member of the U.S. Secret Service's Economic Crimes Task Force, Schwoebel offers tips and insights on how you can educate and protect yourself when it comes to identity theft.
1. Understand the threat
The first step in starting to safeguarding yourself from identity theft is to know the threat landscape. Many people may not realize just how negatively fraudsters can impact your finances, especially your credit score.
Here's one common example: Someone opens up a new credit card in your name, runs up the charges and doesn't pay the bill, which ends up in collections.
"If you have something that goes into collection," Schwoebel says, "That's obviously going to negatively impact your credit score. You can go through the process of working with the credit bureaus and financial institutions to have those identified as not belonging to you and, ultimately, have those taken off of your credit report. However, that's a very slow and tedious process. It's not something that gets cleared up quickly."
This damaging impact on your credit score can have far-reaching effects. For example, you might see less attractive interest rates on mortgage and car loans or be unable to qualify for loans altogether. And if you have to pay any of the fraudulent debt out of pocket, this can delay your ability to save for retirement or make progress toward other financial goals such as paying for a child's college or tackling your own debt.
2. Increase your financial literacy
Schwoebel also recommends working on your financial literacy, including understanding your credit report and familiarizing yourself with some of the common types of identity theft and the dangers they pose to your financial well being.
Common types of identity theft
- Existing account identity theft
This is the most common type of identity theft and describes when a thief gets access to your existing accounts such as your bank, credit card and insurance accounts.
- New account identity theft
This type of identity theft occurs when someone opens a new account in your name using information they obtained about you online, from mail you tossed in the trash or some other way.
- Tax identity theft
Thieves can use your personally identifiable information (PII) to file a tax return and receive a refund. Scammers may impersonate the IRS in order to obtain your information by phone, text or emails with malicious links.
- Medical identity theft
An identity thief may use your personal information and insurance to receive medical treatment. In addition to the risk of adding incorrect information to your medical records, this type of theft can lead to unpaid medical bills in your name that can damage your credit.
- Employment identity theft
This type of theft occurs when someone uses your Social Security number (SSN) to get a job. This could affect your income taxes and future Social Security benefits.
Keeping your personal information secure can help protect you from additional types of identity theft, including criminal identity theft (when someone impersonates you when under investigation by law enforcement) and synthetic identity theft (when a thief creates a fake identity that may use some of your real information such as your SSN).
Other types of identity theft include those that affect children, the elderly and the deceased. It's important to be vigilant when it comes to keeping PII safe and secure for these individuals, and in the case of a deceased person, to make sure credit bureaus and financial institutions are notified of the death.
Schwoebel suggests visiting Identitytheft.gov and AARP Fraud Watch, where you can learn more about identity theft and how to recover. These resources provide insights into ways hackers and fraudsters might try to steal your identity.
3. Create a monitoring plan
In addition to understanding the threat and increasing your financial literacy, Schwoebel stresses the importance of proactive monitoring and incorporating periodic checks of your finances throughout the year. Frequently checking your bills, financial statements and credit reports can go a long way in helping you catch any potential issues or inconsistencies. If you have the budget, a tool like LifeLock can offer additional levels of protection, such as alerting you to potential threats. Furthermore, if you have aging or elderly loved ones, these strategies can help protect them, as well.
Focus on credit reports, Schwoebel recommends. Request a free report from each of the three credit bureaus — TransUnion, Equifax and Experian — every few months. By law, each bureau is required to provide you with a free credit report each year. You can request these reports at AnnualCreditReport.com.
"Pull one at the beginning of the year," Schwoebel says. "Wait four months and pull another, and then wait an additional four months and pull another." With this sort of planned rotation, you have a good shot of catching anything that looks wrong before it's too late.
Schwoebel also says to pay attention to the personal information you're giving out, especially to places where it might not be safeguarded. For instance, while a hospital or financial institution can protect your personal data, the local ice cream shop probably doesn't have the same level of protection.
If you do discover you've been the victim of identity theft, act quickly. Schwoebel says to notify your local police force, which can give you an incident report that you can file with your financial institutions and credit bureaus.
While there's no guarantee you can completely stop the potential of having your identity stolen, there are things you can do to reduce the risk. Dedicate some time and proper planning to monitoring your finances year-round and help protect yourself.