We all worry about identity theft. The horror stories mount, and advertisements from credit card companies and security firms leave us uneasy. It doesn’t help that our fears are grounded in reality.
In the past, we worried that the clerk at the local store might steal a credit card, or that someone would find your credit card receipt when you are on vacation.
But today’s mass data collections attract experienced hackers who make a living from identity theft, or “cybertheft.”
And because we must provide our personal information in so many places: physicians’ offices, employment, insurance, and credit applications, and when making a major purchase, such as a car or house.
We trust total strangers with our credit and debit cards. It seems pretty hard to avoid identity theft when you think about how exposed our data is.
In an October 2015 blog entry, KrebsonSecurity points out that you may not even be aware that your information has been compromised: “…individuals aren’t always notified of data intrusions.”
Even our children are at risk. Because children are clean credit slates, they are susceptible to identity theft. Children and their parents generally don’t monitor their credit, identity theft often isn’t discovered at the time it occurs.
What is identity theft?
The consumer.gov website defines identity theft as someone using your personal information without your permission.
That definition covers a lot of information that we regularly give out to people, such as our Social Security numbers, driver’s license numbers, credit or debit card numbers, date of birth, names of spouses and children, and addresses.
With these tools, a thief can apply for credit or use existing credit.
How does identity theft happen?
Identity theft occurs when someone, a hacker, or someone who has access to your personal information sells that information and it is then used to make a profit at your expense.
The U.S. PIRG Education Fund, a non-partisan consumer education source, states in their article about credit freezing, “Agencies and companies hold too much information for too long and don’t protect it adequately.” This databasing of our personal information ensures that one breach can provide a floodgate of disaster.
How to protect against identity theft
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), consumer organizations, and security specialists recommend individuals explore the following actions to protect from identity theft:
- Fraud monitoring:
- Those on active duty can request an “active duty alert” added to credit monitoring, which alerts the owner of fraudulent activity for 12 months.
- There are two other fraud alerts, an initial fraud alert that lasts 90 days, and an extended fraud alert that lasts 7 years.
Fraud monitoring alerts are valuable because they ask creditors to take certain steps to ensure that those using your account are authorized. However, they do not provide unlimited protection.
- Take steps to physically protect sensitive information by shredding items with your name and identification numbers, protecting information you do not want destroyed, and carrying only the minimum number of credit and debit cards with you.
- Consider a security or “credit freeze” to block inquiries about your credit score. Without the ability to check your credit, few lenders will offer credit, thus limiting the ability of thieves to do damage. (See the U.S. PIRG Education article, “Why You Should Get Security Freezes Before Your Information is Stolen.”)
Another tip, from Lisa:
Monitor your credit report using a free service like annualcreditreport.com. Download a FREE report every 4 months – you can get a free one each year from each service (Experian, Equifax and TransUnion), so space them out throughout the year.
What do I do if I suspect my information is stolen?
If you suspect you have been a victim of identity theft, visit the FTC website: https://www.identitytheft.gov/.
Information on the site will allow you to report the theft and develop a recovery plan.
Consumers are limited in the amount of financial damage they must pay for fraudulent use of their credit. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reports that the faster you report the theft, the less damages you may be incur. But ruined credit and damaged reputation may take longer to repair.
In the case of identity theft, prevention is the best cure.
What do you think? Has your identity been stolen? How did you respond?
Thank you to Doug @diydoug for this helpful article!
Read how to prevent credit card theft here.