You may have wondered how to help protect yourself from identity theft, particularly if you know folks who’ve experienced it. They’ll tell you that being an identity theft victim can be an unsettling experience and recovery can take a lot of time and effort. Hearing such stories could be reason enough for you to try to avoid becoming a victim yourself.
In this article, we’ll cover what information identity thieves are after and why it’s important to them. We’ll also explain what they can do with the information they obtain and how you can help protect yours. And we’ll tell you what you can do if you ever become the unfortunate victim of identity theft.
Can identity theft be prevented?
Can you prevent identity theft? The sad truth is, no — no one can prevent identity theft. That’s because it’s impossible to keep criminals from accessing your personal information and then using it to commit fraud in your name. Even if you do your best to keep your information as secure as possible, some security aspects are out of your control. For instance, if a company with which you do business suffers a data breach, exposing your personal information, how could you have stopped that? The only option is to not have done business with the company in the first place.
There are many types of identity theft
There’s not just one kind of identity theft. In fact, there are many different kinds. Here are a few examples of what criminals can do with stolen personal information:
- Existing account takeover identity theft: This is when criminals gain access to someone’s existing accounts, so that they can then make charges to credit cards, siphon money from bank accounts, and even file claims against insurance policies.
- New account identity theft: When an identity thief opens a completely new account in your name. This can be done by digging credit card applications from your mailbox or your trash.
- Tax-related identity theft: This occurs when the fraudster submits an income tax return using someone else’s Social Security number and fraudulent income data, hoping to obtain a tax refund.
- Criminal identity theft: This is when a criminal gives someone else’s personal information to a law enforcement official. It could be for something as simple as a minor traffic violation. But if a fine is never paid, authorities could issue an arrest warrant in the identity theft victim’s name — leaving that person to figure out what happened and clean up the mess.
These and other types of identity theft are a real threat. The more you know about them, the better able you may be to help protect yourself and your family.
Are you an easy target for identity thieves?
If I were an identity thief, would you be an easy target? That depends, in part, on how well you protect your information. It also depends on how well others — to whom you’ve entrusted your information — are protecting it.
The one thing you should know is that there’s no way to prevent identity theft, but there are steps you can take to help minimize the risk. Knowing those steps may help you sleep better at night and give you some sense of control over the personal information identity thieves are after.
Consider data breaches involving email accounts. If I, as an identity thief, had access to all of the information in your email account, what would I have? Well, possibly everything from old bank and credit card statements to electronic pay stubs to documents you gathered for a mortgage application. Between your inbox and your “sent” mail, there’s no telling what personal information of yours I’d have at my fingertips. And, of course, once I had access to your email account, I’d try to quickly change the password so you couldn’t seize control again.
How to help protect yourself against identity theft
You can’t put a “protected” sign on your personal information like you can when you install a security system in your house, but whether you’re online or out and about, there are ways you can help combat identity theft. Let’s review some of the steps you can take in both settings. These aren’t all-inclusive, but they’re a good start, and they may prompt you to come up with other ways to protect your PII. Let’s start with where you may be as you read this article — online.
How to help protect yourself from ID theft online
Your online behaviors may have an impact on your risk of identity theft. Here are some tips to keep in mind:
- Be careful with both how and where you share your personal information when you’re on the Internet — whether you’re using a computer or a mobile device.
- Give your home Wi-Fi network a name that isn’t tied to your home. For instance, if your street address is 123 Main St., don’t name your Wi-Fi network, “123 Main.” You don’t want to make yourself an obvious target.
- Make sure you give your Wi-Fi network a strong and unique password so those would-be intruders can’t easily access your network and, perhaps, the devices connected to it.
- Make sure the passwords you’re using for online accounts are strong and unique. Using the same password on multiple accounts certainly makes it easier for you to remember, but when sophisticated hackers score a breach using one of your passwords, they may test your stolen login credentials on other accounts — the one for your bank, perhaps. If your credentials are the same for both, imagine the consequences.
- Consider how you use Wi-Fi when you’re on the go. Be wary of logging into accounts or transacting when on a public Wi-Fi network, even if that network is password protected. Coffee-shop Wi-Fi passwords are easy to come by. With the right tools, a cyber thief on the same network could follow your online moves and capture everything from your login credentials to the credit card information you type in while shopping.
- If you have to do business on a public Wi-Fi network, consider using a VPN, or virtual private network. A VPN creates a kind of tunnel to encrypt your data, making it useless to would-be snoops.
How to help protect yourself from ID theft offline
There are also plenty of precautions you can take while “offline” to help protect yourself from identity theft. Remember, you’re trying to reduce the chance identity thieves will put their hands on your personal information. So, consider how they could have access to it around your home.
- Is your mailbox secure? An unlocked mailbox is an easy target for thieves who steal identities the old-fashioned way. From it, they can grab everything from credit card mailings to your annual W-2 statement. A secure mailbox can be a wise and relatively inexpensive investment to help protect your identity.
- Speaking of old-fashioned methods, it may be hard to believe in this digital era, but dumpster diving is still a thing. If you’re throwing away documents loaded with your personal information without first shredding them, you’re making it easy for any identity thief who’s willing to get his hands dirty rifling through your trash. That thief could obtain vital info from old bank statements, healthcare claims, and other discarded paperwork.
- Do you invite strangers into your home? Not usually, right? But consider the occasional appliance repair person, cable TV installer, or other unknown people you allow beyond the front door. Unless you’re with them throughout their visit, and depending on where you keep your incoming mail or important documents, they might have easy access to your personal information without you ever noticing.
- It may also pay for you to invest in a document lockbox at home or a security deposit box at your bank to safeguard your most important documents.
How to report identity theft
Even if you do everything correctly, you may still become a victim of identity theft. Remember, breaches occur regularly, and companies where you have accounts may be among those affected, putting your PII in the wrong hands.
If you find that you’re a victim of identity theft, the Federal Trade Commission recommends the following steps to begin the recovery process:
You may also want to file a police report. Look for additional, detailed information on the FTC website.
If you have an identity theft protection service, it may be able to take a lot of this work off your hands — and alert you to possible fraudulent activity using your PII.
The bottom line: Do what you can to help protect your personal information from being lost, stolen, or otherwise compromised. But recognize that the security of your information is only as strong as the weakest link in a chain that includes the many businesses, government agencies, and other entities that you trust with it. And remember, in the end, no one can prevent identity theft.
This content was lightly edited and updated on June 18, 2018.