Identity Theft: How You Can Protect Yourself

Updated on April 15, 2020
Michael-Duncan profile image

Michael has a Newcastle University Certificate in Cybersecurity. He also has experience in combatting cybercrime.

Identity theft is a form of crime where your personal information is taken over without your consent and used fraudulently.

Modern technological innovation and interconnectivity gives us access to conveniences which did not exist a few decades ago, but this technology is now being used by criminals to harvest and use sensitive data for their own ends.

Owing to the proliferation of gadgetry in the information age, there are plenty of sources from which data can be stolen, including credit records, bank statements, social security numbers, tax information, or hacked accounts.

Identity Theft Is a Fast-Growing Problem

According to research group Javelin Strategy and Research, 14.4 million people fell victim to identity theft in the US alone, while takeovers of mobile phone accounts doubled in number, from 380,000 in 2017 to 680,000 in 2018. Statistics show that identity theft occurs every two seconds!

It is one of the fastest-growing criminal enterprises in the world today. The rise is fuelled by advances in modern technology which are exploited by the criminals to make their operations all the more sophisticated.

Once you become a victim, you are likely to end up in a fight for the rest of your lifetime. Fighting identity theft costs billions.

Modern Methods of Identity Theft

What are some of the methods employed today in the commission of identity theft?

One way perpetrators do this is by stealing your personal data and then contacting your credit card issuer with the information that your billing address has changed and needs to be updated in the system.

After the change has been effected, the perpetrators are then free to go on a shopping spree at your expense, charging numerous purchases to your account. Since the billing address has been changed, you remain in the dark as to what is actually taking place until it is too late.

Alternatively, they could open multiple accounts using your personal information, run transactions on those accounts which you will not be conscious of until they begin showing up in your credit report.

With your personal information, criminals can open new telephone accounts, register phone services or attach utility bills to your name. They can create bouncing checks in your name or begin taking out new loans.

They can also acquire new identity cards using your details and use your identity to protect themselves whenever they are caught in an offence, by simply handing you over to the authorities instead.

That way, they do not need to appear in court when summoned for a legal proceeding, since the warrant of arrest will be issued to your place of residence and you will be the culprit on the record despite the fact that you have no clue about the crime in question.

There are a multitude of ways in which a stolen identity can be used for unlawful gain. There are also a lot of methods that have been discussed concerning how you can protect yourself from identity theft.

The Basic Weapon Against Identity Theft

The core weapon you have against identity theft is closer than you may think. In fact, each of us is in possession of this weapon right now, no matter where we are.

What weapon is this?

Well, it is staring back at you in the bathroom mirror every morning.

You are the one who is in the best position to safeguard against this menace.

Protection begins by learning how critically sensitive and valuable your personal information is. The loss of it can cost you everything you have.

So let's go through some of the ways in which we can protect ourselves and those whom we love from identity theft.

1. Transaction Monitoring

In their press release last year, Javelin Strategy & Research stated the following:

While credit card accounts remained the most prevalent targets for new account fraud, there was significant growth in the opening of new intermediary accounts, such as email payments (e.g. PayPal) and other internet accounts (e.g. e-commerce merchants such as Amazon) by fraudsters.

As mentioned before, the thieves can impersonate you and call your credit company to change your billing address as soon as they steal your credit card information. Then they are free to run charges on the card as much as they want and you will be none the wiser, because all the invoices will be dispatched to another address.

They could also open up other credit card accounts using your identity and again, you would not know it because the bills are being directed to a different address. In this way, you will not be aware that your credit record is worsening with time.

That is unless you are vigilant.

Be someone who checks your account statements constantly, without having to wait for the actual statement to be delivered to you. Use secure methods like protected apps to stay updated on your transactions on a regular basis. Check your credit report for any discrepancies.

In other words, always be on the alert when it comes to every financial record you have. Are there activities or movements that you did not authorize, or which were not initiated by you?

Any inconsistencies in your transaction trail or unexpected charges need to be disputed immediately since any delay on your part only works to the advantage of the criminal. It buys them more time to indulge themselves at your expense.

The key to knowing how to respond to an attack is to understand that time is of the essence. Literally every second counts.

2. Protect Your Accounts

Failure to report unauthorized withdrawals or dubious transactions within 60 days after receiving your statement, may not only mean that lose all the funds you have, you could also be made responsible for the loss in your line of credit.

Ask for credit reports on a regular basis and once you detect debts owed or suspicious movements that you did not authorize, begin to dispute the charges at once.

Once you are convinced that you are not the originator of the charges, inform your credit bureau that someone else may have access to your identity. Rather than simply creating a fraud alert, you need to freeze your accounts.

This includes savings accounts, department cards, credit card accounts, and so on. It will not only help your case in the present, it will provide solid evidence in the future that something significant did take place, and willl protect you if you need to negotiate for credit in the future.

A fraud alert will only inform the creditor that your report has been violated, but since an investigation is still pending, it does not demonstrate to these institutions that you did not do it yourself.

A fraud alert means that you may be rejected if you try to apply for additional credit. it does not necessarily protect you in the present.

In contrast, a credit freeze will completely block the flow of data and secure your credit. Your files will only be restricted to those who need to have access to them and no one else.

A credit freeze will stop identity theft in its tracks. Anything the criminal may have on you is rendered null and void, be it a driver's licence, social security number, date of birth, or other personal details.

Another thing to note is that these are professional criminals who not only know how, but when best to strike. They are opportunists.

They tend to take advantage of special anniversaries, festivals or holiday seasons, especially Christmas, because during such times, a lot of shoppers will not want their credit cards or bank accounts to be hindered in any way.

So always be on the alert. Also, keep your personal and financial records secure and shared only with the institutions you trust.

3. Be Careful With Checks

Checks can seem to be a convenient way of settling payments. But the danger here is that slip of paper carries too much sensitive information.

Some experts dissuade people from using checks because one is actually giving away their address, signature, licence and account number to total strangers.

Moreover, there is almost no legislation in place to protect a victim from liability that emanates from forged checks.

To avoid the risks involved, automate the process of paying your bills.

Also, never allow new checks to be delivered or mailed to your home address. Always arrange to collect them at the bank or at the credit union instead.

A fraud alert will only inform the creditor that your report has been violated, but since an investigation is still pending, it does not demonstrate to these institutions that you did not do it yourself.

4. Rethink Disposal

Believe it or not, it isn't illegal for strangers to rummage through your trash! What this means is that there is no law that protects you from dumpster divers.

The retrieval of discarded documents by third parties is a major threat not just for individuals, but for organizations and businesses.

Aside from letters and other documents, cutting up old or pre-approved cards with scissors and throwing them in the trash is not good enough. Thieves can always retrieve these and create new accounts with different addresses.

Do not simply discard any paperwork with personal or financial information carelessly. This will protect you from the danger of someone else piecing together details about you that can be used to defraud you.

Some people counter this risk by simply reducing everything to ashes by burning. However, this is not an option that can apply to everyone.

5. Document Shredding

It has actually been stated that document shredders are the front line of defence against identity theft.

Shredders come in many shapes and sizes.

Avoid going for the regular ones which shred by cutting documents in strips since it is possible for someone to reassemble them later.

Actually, instead of deterring thieves, the strips in your trash bag will actually attract them like a moth to a flame. They will know that the strips are in that condition because they hold some valuable information.

So instead, purchase a cross-cut shredder which reduces the paper into confetti. This is hardly possible to reassemble.

Shredded paper can also come in handy around the home, for example, they can make for excellent rodent bedding kids have small pets!

At this point you may think, do I really want to run the cost of purchasing a new shredder?

Well, think for a moment concerning the real cost of not owning one. Think of the incalculable loss a single identity crime could cost you - losses that have followed victims for the rest of their lives.

Avoid being the next victim. Begin shredding (or burning) today!

According to research group Javelin Strategy and Research, 14.4 million people fell victim to identity in the US alone, while takeovers of mobile phone accounts doubled in number, from 380,000 in 2017 to 680,000 in 2018. Statistics show that identity theft occurs every 2 seconds!

6. Use Virtual Numbers

Instead of using checks or other means of payments that leave you vulnerable, switch to virtual numbers. These are card numbers that are randomly generated and are disposable once the shopper has used the card.

The number is however connected directly to your credit card account such that the expenses is charged as part of your monthly bill. This is not only easy to use, it is also free of charge.

What you need to do is to register yourself with the companies that offer virtual card services, and these include Citigroup, Discover and MBNA.

7. Erase Records

Your computer stores a lot of information and keeps traces of your online activities, including the sites that you visit.

This information can work against you when it falls into the hands of unscrupulous criminals targetting your identity.

So make it a regular practice to delete cookies, clear the browsing history and remove files that accumulate from site visits.

You can either choose to do this yourself or install a reliable software program that will clean up your computer and remove any trace of such information.

All this is not to say that you have to be running around like a paranoid schizophrenic who feels like everyone is out to get a piece of you! It is just to create a sense of awareness in order to know what necessary precautions need to be taken.

In their press release last year, Javelin Strategy & Research stated the following:

While credit card accounts remained the most prevalent targets for new account fraud, there was significant growth in the opening of new intermediary accounts, such as email payments (e.g. PayPal) and other internet accounts (e.g. e-commerce merchants such as Amazon) by fraudsters.

8. Prepare an Emergency Identity Kit

An emergency identity kit can come in handy when dealing with identity theft.

Once the crime sets in, every moment counts. Speed of reaction is a major factor here. So don't wait till its too late and you are too busy trying to remember or find out where you placed crucial documents.

Many people have landed on the wrong side of the law and become penalized because they could not find documentation to prove their innocence on time.

Collect and place together in a secure place (e.g. a diversion safe) all your key details, including account numbers, expiration dates, emergency contacts, issuing company names and work-related information. Include copies of your social security card, birth certificate, driver's licence, national ID.

The safe has an added advantage of preserving your records in the event of an earthquake, fire or other disaster.

9. Cover All Your Bases

As stated previously, a victim who has had their identity stolen can be in for much more than losing their funds or property.

Criminals can go on to commit serious crimes and then furnish authorities with the victim's identity when they are arrested. In this way, they ensure that the victim receives the warrant of arrest when they fail to appear in court.

The more serious the crimes are, the more convoluted the legal process to prove that the victim is actually innocent.

If you suspect you have been or will be targetted by such an attack, don't wait till matters have reached the point of no return. As far as possible, organize your daily routine such that you are always in situations where evidence of your presence can easily be proven.

The availability of witnesses, surveillance cameras and any other collaborating means of evidence can work to your favour in a court of law and make the legal process much easier.

If a crime is committed (for example, a robbery, an extortion, a murder, a road accident or a drunken brawl) you will have solid proof that you were not involved.

10. Additional Tips

 
(1) Change all your passwords randomly as often as possible, especially when you suspect that something fishy is going on.
(2) Conceal your hand when typing in your PIN in public venues.
(3) Never give personal or financial information within earshot of others in a public place (e.g. to a cashier at a bank or store, in a restaurant). Offer to jot them down on paper instead.
(4) Never allow others to use your credit card, driver's licence, social security, etc.
(5) When making credit card purchases, always keep your receipts with you and do not discard them in a waste paper basket.
(6) Make sure your mailbox is secured. Your mailbox is a treasure trove of information for identity thieves. All the letters you receive from the bank, service providers, companies and even friends and relatives contain a lot of details that can be useful to an identity thief who intends to use your identity to commit a crime or apply for credit. Either lock your mailbox or maintain a rented mailbox. It is also useful to place it where there is video surveillance.
(7) If you suspect you have fallen victim to fraud as a result of identity theft, take swift action in order to prevent the damage from spreading any further. Don't delay. Lay aside other activities and address the matter immediately.

Conclusion

Remember that even though there are now strict laws in place against identity theft and cybercriminal activities, when these individuals are caught, no amount of time spent behind bars can replace or restore what their victims have lost.

Once a victim's identity has been stolen, undoing the damage could occupy them for the rest of their lives. This can also come with tremendous emotional and psychological repercussions.

Apart from insecurity, anxiety, mental stress and hopelessness, the latter typically includes the loss of confidence, respect and trust. Such persons can feel so stripped and violated that they resort to professional counselling after having been victimized.

It can also be very draining to wade through bureaucratic processes while working with institutions, law enforcement and other bodies in order to clear one's name.

The other challenge is that perpetrators pay far less than the victims. Many get a few years in jail and then they are free to continue with further criminal activities.

At the same time, governments, law enforcement and federal bureaus are limited in an administrative capacity on what they can do to combat the crime. This is due to its complexity and the fact that they are already weighed down with so many other causes and concerns.

Therefore, for the most part, the task is up to you as the individual. This is also why prevention is always better than cure.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

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