Identity theft is a major problem. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), there were more than 650,000 victims of identity theft in 2019, making ID theft the most-reported type of FTC complaint. Chances are good that you will encounter identity theft in your lifetime. That was the case for at least 1 in 10 Americans ages 16 and older in 2016, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Protecting your identity and privacy should be a priority for you, and knowing what identity theft is can help you prepare. There are many different types of ID theft, which can make safeguarding your personal information even more important—and more difficult. Let’s look at some of the most common examples of identity theft and what you can do to manage the risks.
Defining Identity Theft
The term “identity theft” is used a lot, often interchangeably with “fraud.” Though many instances of identity theft are committed for fraudulent reasons, the two are slightly different. If you are a victim of identity theft, you want to catch it before it becomes fraud.
According to the National Center for Victims of Crime (NCVC), identity theft is “the knowing transfer or use, without lawful authority, of another person’s identity with the intent to commit, aid, or abet unlawful activity.” In simpler terms, ID theft is the act of stealing another person’s information, like through mail theft, phishing, card skimming, unsecure Wi-Fi or a data breach. Fraud is when a criminal illegally uses that information for their own gain.
The NCVC calls the latter “identity fraud,” which encompasses crimes like credit card fraud, medical fraud, and Social Security number theft. Identity fraud can be financially driven, but is also committed out of other motivations. Someone might try to steal your passport or driver’s license information to travel unnoticed by law enforcement, for example.
Whether an ID thief uses your credit card or medical insurance, the cost to you can be big. Javelin Research found that the 2018 out-of-pocket costs for victims of identity theft were $1.7 billion.
Different Types of Identity Fraud
As a popular saying goes, “Know your enemy.” Let’s take a closer look at identity fraud types and preventative measures you can take to prepare yourself and protect your finances.
1. Credit Cards
Credit card fraud is by far the most prevalent type of identity theft, according to FTC numbers.
You probably store your credit card information with different vendors or subscription services. If you used your card once at a retail store, they’ll still have your information on file. If a data breach occurs at one of those businesses, someone may gain access to your credit card number and begin to make fraudulent purchases.
While it may be easier to catch a fraudulent charge on a card you have, it could be harder to spot a new account in your name. In the meantime, hard inquiries and high credit utilization due to fraud could wreck your credit score.
What you can do: Requesting a chargeback might help you avoid paying for specific fraudulent transactions, but checking your credit report will show you if the problem is deeper. Sign up for ExtraCredit to keep an eye on your credit report and scores at the same time to make sure that fraudulent accounts aren’t being opened or used. You can also request your free credit report from each of the three credit reporting agencies once a year to keep close control over your identity and credit profile. If you notice anything fishy, request a freeze immediately and file a report with the FTC.
Note: Due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, you can currently review your credit reports from each of the three credit bureaus for free each week, through April 2021.
2. Loans and Leases
Somebody with your personal information might try to apply for a loan online. Fraudsters may then be able to get financing to buy a car or real estate. The FTC has also reported fraud instances related to student loans and payday loans.
Loan application fraud is a challenge to track, but the impact is someone racking up debt in your name. When creditors come calling, it won’t be the thief who has to answer the phone.
What you can do: As with credit card fraud, regularly check your credit reports to watch for red flags. If you spot something, immediately contact the responsible financial institution. You may also want to file a police report or contact the office of the attorney general for your state. If you are the victim of loan/lease fraud, consider using credit repair services to help you recover.
3. Phones and Utilities
Mobile takeover fraud is a complicated scheme, but it’s a growing problem. Basically, it involves a fraudster using your information to access your smartphone and then lock you out. In the meantime, they can use your apps, read saved documents, or scam others by impersonating you. They might also harvest your personal and financial information that you have saved. The same might happen for an electricity or water account: A criminal finds a way in and consumes services that are ultimately billed to you.
The common theme with identity theft here is that if someone has your info, they can do just about anything with it. This includes opening up utility accounts in your name, getting free electricity, gas, water, internet or cable.
What you can do: Maintain strong passwords for all the accounts you have. If you need to, use a password manager to help you keep track of all the complex log-in credentials. Never, ever make your passwords using personally identifiable information, like a pet, birthdate, or home street. Should something happen, immediately contact your service provider.
4. Tax Fraud
Come tax time, a refund is a happy surprise for some Americans. Others may get a nasty shock when they’ve learned someone has claimed their return before they even file their taxes. Tax fraud typically occurs when someone has stolen your Social Security number, which they can then manipulate to falsely file a return and claim your refund.
What you can do: Under no circumstances should you give your SSN to anybody but trusted entities like the government, your bank, or your credit card company. Be wary of scammers posing as the IRS who will call or email you demanding your SSN information. This is a surefire sign of fraud. You can also opt to file your taxes early, thereby eliminating the opportunity for thieves to file for you and claim your return.
The IRS recommends watching out for various scams. If you believe you’ve been a victim, file a report on IdentityTheft.gov, call the IRS at 1-800-908-4490, and complete and submit the identity theft Affidavit.
Taking the Next Steps to Protect Your Identity
Identity theft is a constant threat, so you’ll always need to be on your toes.
Guard It from ExtraCredit provides you with proactive alerts, dark web monitoring, account monitoring, and $1 million in ID theft insurance. Sign up today or read more articles about identity theft and fraud.