Identity theft may be one of the most common and costliest crimes in the United States, and affects millions of people annually. In fact, sources estimate that as many as 9 million people within the U.S. are victims of identity theft every year. One of the reasons it is such a common crime is because there are so many ways to commit it—through old-school channels such as physical acquisition of things like wallets, checks, and billing statements, as well as computer-related theft such as phishing and corporate hacking. However it occurs, it results in financial losses of nearly $50 billion per year. On an individual basis, the numbers translate to affect 7 percent of all U.S. adults and cause losses of $3,500 per affected person annually.
Even the most careful and knowledgeable people can be victims when hackers get into corporate databases, such as the recent Apple hack, which compromised the user numbers of over a million Apple device ID numbers. So, how do you protect yourself? Here’s how to beef up your security, protect your private information, and what to do if you become a victim.
Security and Prevention
By now you are probably aware that you should never put un-shredded documents with personal information in the garbage or recycling, that you shouldn’t keep your social security card in your wallet, and that you should never write down passwords or PIN numbers. As criminals have become savvier about stealing personal information, experts have come up with additional strategies for protecting your information:
• Credit report: Most people have no idea what’s on their credit report because they never think to check it. However, checking your credit report should be done at least as frequently as checking your smoke detector batteries, which means every six months. AnnualCreditReport.com provides the only truly free report, and only annually, but it uses three reporting companies, so you can stagger your requests. This is the best way to determine whether someone else has applied for credit using your information, which could seriously impact your credit score.
• Opting Out: Opting out of offers, junk mail, and email spam not only reduces the amount of mail you have to deal with, but also creates fewer opportunities for someone to take one of those offers on your behalf. Opt-outs can be annoying—some companies make it a multi-step process to discourage opt-outs—but it’s an important extra layer of protection.
• Home security: A substantial portion of identity theft occurs within the home, through personal documents acquired by a friend, family member, or service worker. Not only should you shred everything that you possibly can, including billing statements after they’ve been paid, but important documents such as birth certificates should be kept offsite in a fireproof safe or safety deposit box.
• Online security: The first step in protecting yourself online is to be aware of the different ways criminals can access your information. One of the most common is phishing, where you are sent an email that looks like it comes from a legitimate company you do business with, but is really a fake designed to make you give up personal information. Never click a link in an unsolicited email. Even if you don’t enter any information, it could install a virus on your computer that gives someone else access to your data and internet activity. If you aren’t sure, contact the company directly via a bookmarked link or phone number obtained outside of the suspicious email.
If You Become a Victim
Becoming a victim of identity theft is a nightmare nobody wants to deal with, but if it does happen you’ll need to know how to restore your credit. Here are the steps you should take:
- Contact all your creditors. You’ll want to review all recent transactions, determine which accounts are at risk, and have new cards with different account numbers issued to you. You may also need to dispute fraudulent charges and/or have stolen money restored to your accounts.
- Contact all three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) and have a 90-Day Fraud Alert put on your credit files to warn creditors that your identity has been compromised.
- Complete the Identity Theft Affidavit from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to send to businesses and creditors who accept them.
- File a police report to report the identity theft.
- Change all passwords and PINs. You should be doing this every few months anyway, but if your information has been stolen, be sure to do it immediately and for all accounts and websites.