If you see a purchase on your credit card statement that you don’t remember making, you might be a victim of identity theft.
As cyber attacks and data breaches occur more and more frequently, the risk of losing your digital identity to theft increases. This is why you need to know both the warning signs, as well as the best ways to protect against it.
Otherwise, you and your credit score could be in for a whole world of hurt.
1. Denied credit.
Robert Siciliano, CEO of IDTheftSecurity.com says, “A sure sign of identity theft is when you are denied credit. Once a consumer checks their credit report and sees unauthorized accounts that means their identity has effectively been stolen.”
Sage Singleton, safety expert at Safewise agrees that a clear warning sign of having your identity stolen is “if you are denied [for a loan or credit card] and you know you have good credit.” A good credit score takes hard work and discipline to maintain, and yet a stolen identity could cause untold damage to your score.
In fact, seeing an abrupt drop in your score is another good reason to request a copy of your credit report and look for signs of theft. You can request a free copy of your credit report once a year from each of the three major credit bureaus: Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax. To order a copy of your report, just visit www.AnnualCreditReport.com. (Did we mention that it’s free?)
And if you have bad credit, well, you can find solace in the fact that your financial identity is not a prime target for scammers. It’s not much of a silver lining, but it’s better than nothing, right?
2. Unknown charges or statements.
If you’ve ever had your purse or wallet stolen, you’ve probably seen a bunch of charges immediately show up on your account. Thieves in those situations usually head straight to the nearest electronics or jewelry store and spend as much money as they can before the card is canceled by the owner.
When someone steals your identity, the results can be pretty similar. Not only will the thief use your information to apply for new loans and cards, they can also make purchases on the cards you already have. The only difference is that, unlike a pickpocket, they’ll probably be a little more subtle about it.
According to Siciliano, a person who “receives bills for products and services they did not order or they are called on by a lender or creditor for unpaid loans,” is very likely a victim of identity theft.
“If you notice an error on your bank statement, talk to your financial institution immediately. It may be a simple error or it could be a sign of identity theft,” says Singleton.
Likewise, it’s important that you keep an eye out for the statements that arrive in your email inbox and your actual mailbox. Singleton says that “If you receive any statement from an unknown account, your identity may have been stolen and the thief may have opened many accounts in your name.”
Now, of course, there’s always a chance that you made that purchase or applied for that credit card and simply don’t remember it. Who among us has not started a free trial of Tidal so that we could listen to the new Beyonce/Kanye/Jay-Z album and then forgotten to cancel it in time?
Still, it’s a good idea to keep on top of both your purchases made and the financial statements being sent to you. If fraud is being committed using your information, that’s where the evidence will likely surface.
3. Gone phishing.
No not that kind of phishing. The other kind.
According to lawyer, author, and identity theft expert Steve Weisman, “One of the most common ways that we become victims of identity theft is by clicking on links in emails or text messages that contain malware that enables the identity thief to gain access to all of the information in our phones or computers and use it to make us a victim of identity theft.”
Weisman says that you should “Recognize the dangers of phishing and the more tailored spear phishing and never click on a link unless you have confirmed that the communication is legitimate,” adding that you should also “Make sure you have good security software on all of your electronic devices and keep it up to date with the latest security patches.”
Lastly, he has another recommendation that will deter hackers and identity thieves from targeting you in the first place:
“Limit the amount of personal information you provide on social media. This information can be used by a clever identity thief to create a spear phishing email or text message to you that you trust and lure you to click on a link infected with malware.”
Ways to Protect Your Identity
Of course, what good are knowing the warnings signs of identity theft if you don’t also know how to protect your information?
Don’t worry. We’ve got you covered.
Store, Shred, and Protect
Someone looking to steal your identity doesn’t need to be a world-class hacker with five computer screens and a hard drive the size of a Buick. Lots of times, all they would need to do in order to nab your financial info is go through your trash
“It may seem obvious,” says Singleton, “but it’s important to keep sensitive documents secured in a fireproof safe. Never leave important documents in your car or laying on the counter of your kitchen. When you no longer need a document, make sure to shred it and dispose of it safely.”
She also recommends that you empty your mailbox daily:
“Utility bills often include personal information. As such, it’s important to empty your mailbox daily so thieves can’t scavenge your mail and steal your identity.”
The same principles hold true for your Social Security number. Keep it close to your chest and try to limit the number of documents that carry it. The more pieces of paper or computer files out there that carry your SSN, the greater the odds that a hacker can get their grubby little hands on your identity.
“The most important thing you can do to protect yourself from identity theft is to guard the privacy of your Social Security number which is the most valuable piece of personal information for an identity thief,” says Weisman.
“Don’t provide it merely because it is asked for by anyone for identification purposes unless absolutely necessary. Your primary care physician does not need it although many ask for it.”
Keep on top of your statements.
“Check your financial statements regularly,” says Singleton. “Look for irregular transactions and notify your bank immediately if you see something suspicious. The sooner you catch an error, the easier it is to prevent identity theft.”
She also recommends that you “Enable security alerts on your financial accounts. Set up auto security alerts on your bank cards that notify you of any purchase. You will get a notification to your phone or email detailing purchases.”
“This is an easy way to keep track of your spending and be notified immediately if something is wrong.”
Consider a credit freeze.
According to Siciliano, “The most effective way to prevent this type of fraud is via investing in identity theft protection services and what’s called a credit freeze. A credit freeze locks down your credit report so lines of credit cannot be opened unless you thaw your credit.”
Weisman also suggests a credit freeze to prevent identity theft. He says that putting on a freeze will make sure that “even if an identity thief has your Social Security number and other personal information about you, he or she cannot gain access to your credit report to get credit or make large purchases in your name.”
If you want to place a freeze on your credit report, you will need to contact each of the credit bureaus directly and pay a small fee.
(For more information about credit freezes, you can read Weisman’s entry on his Scamicide blog.)
Protect Your Passwords
Another recommendation from Singleton is to “Keep passwords in a secure place and change them often. Don’t use the same password for every account and create strong, unique passwords.”
“Hackers are extremely tech-savvy and can crack weak passwords (like your maiden name, birth date or anniversary) and access your information easily. Don’t write your password down on a notepad near your computer.”
“If you must write it down,” says Singleton, “store it in a safe location.”
What to do if you have your identity stolen
“If you think you have become a victim of identity theft,” says Weisman, “you should file a police report and contact each of the three major credit reporting bureaus to inform them that they have erroneous information in your credit report and demand an investigation and the removal of the deleterious information from your credit report. Credit reports are critical documents because they are used not just by companies granting credit, but also by employers, insurance agencies, landlords and others.”
In cases where someone has used your identity to commit a crime, Weisman instructs you to “go to your local police department and District Attorney’s office to provide fingerprints and photo identification to show that you are a victim of identity theft and get a letter from the DA to keep with you in case you are ever stopped in the future in regard to a crime committed by someone in your name.”
Fixing a bad credit score is hard enough to enough to do on your own. You don’t need some cyber-criminal making it harder. Follow these steps and take care of your identity. It’s the only one you’ve got.
Robert Siciliano (@RobertSiciliano) is a #1 Best-Selling Author and CEO of IDTheftSecurity.com which is funny, but serious about teaching you and your audience fraud prevention and personal security. Robert is a United States Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla Staff Officer of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security whose motto is Semper Paratus. His programs are cutting edge, easily digestible and provide best practices to keep you, your clients and employees safe and secure. Your audience will walk away as experts in identity theft prevention, online reputation management, online privacy and data security.
Sage Singleton (@SafeWise) is a safety expert for SafeWise. She enjoys teaching, individuals, families and communities about safe home and lifestyle habits. In her free time, she enjoys wedding planning, traveling and learning French.
Steve Weisman (@Scamicide) is a lawyer, college professor at Bentley University and author. He is one of the country’s leading experts in identity theft. His most recent book is “Identity Theft Alert.” He also writes the blog scamicide.com where he provides daily updated information about the latest scams and identity theft schemes.
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