Identity theft is a growing problem in the U.S., with about 1 in 20 Americans falling victim to it each year. Having your identity stolen is a serious problem that can negatively affect on your financial well-being and your ability to make large purchases. As we conduct more of our lives online, it’s easier than ever for bad actors to access our information and use it to commit fraudulent acts. But with some preparation and attention, you can protect yourself from identity fraud.
What is identity theft?
Identity theft occurs when someone steals your personal information and uses it to apply for credit cards, get medical services or take out a loan. This damages your credit and takes a lot of time and effort to correct and restore your reputation and finances.
How can I protect myself from identity theft?
- Safeguard your Social Security Number. Your SSN is the primary way that institutions identify you and track financial and legal activity. Don’t carry your Social Security card with you, and don’t give your number out to just anyone.
- Keep your personal information to yourself. In addition to your Social Security Number, keep secret your birth date, bank account numbers, and other sensitive information. You should only give this information out to reputable institutions and only when necessary.
- Secure your mail. Collect your mail every day, rather than leaving it in the mailbox where anyone can access it. After you collect your mail, go through it and ensure that everything is free of sensitive information. If your mail includes bank account numbers or other personal details, shred it before throwing it out.
- Ensure your online activity is secure. Keep your browser updated and use all of the security features on your phone. Use a virtual private network and two-factor authentication to log into your accounts. Two-factor authentication means that in addition to providing login information on a website, you verify your identity on your phone as well.
- Safeguard your online accounts. Use firewalls and virus-detection software on your computer, and create complex and unique passwords for your online accounts.
- Keep an eye on your bank accounts. Look out for unfamiliar charges on your statements and make a note of anything that looks suspicious. If unknown charges show up on your accounts, that could be a sign that someone has accessed your bank account information and using it for nefarious reasons.
- Review your credit reports. Do this annually to ensure that no one has opened an account in your name that you did not authorize.
What should I do if my identity is stolen?
First, tell your banks and creditors that your identity has been stolen. Then, freeze your credit and your accounts. Check and place a fraud alert on your credit reports.
Report the identity theft to the Federal Trade Commission, which will send you a recovery plan for how to get your identity back. You’ll also get an Identity Theft Report, which serves as proof that your identity was stolen, something you’ll need to take steps to recover your identity.
Go to the police and report the fraud to them. Getting a police report will also help protect you from further damages and assist you as you try to set things right.
Change all of your passwords and remove fraudulent information from your credit report. You can do this by reaching out to all three credit bureaus and letting them know that your identity has been stolen. Again, the FTC can assist with this, providing a sample letter that you can use to communicate the right information.
Finally, change all of your passwords and replace any stolen identification. You can also reach out to the Office of the Inspector General to get a copy of your Earnings and Benefits Statement, which will help you track your accounts and how your Social Security Number has been used.
Identity theft is a serious problem that can severely impact your financial health and overall quality of life. Taking these steps can help you avoid becoming the target of malicious actors and keep your finances and your identity safe.