Government agencies, banks, and credit bureaus continue to report the widespread increase of identity theft, and the destruction it causes victims. Identity thieves, out to use your personal information find new ways every day to successfully open accounts in your name, get medical services, government benefits, and even apply for jobs. Every two minutes, an identity is stolen in this country. Because of this, millions of Americans have found the need for identity theft protection.
What Is Identity Theft?
Identity Theft Definition
Both federal and state governments investigate and enforce criminal statutes involving identity theft. The crime is generally defined as obtaining, stealing, or gathering personal identifying information, identification or documents that are intended for use to commit illegal activity. This is done with the intention to defraud, steal, or use financial resources or benefits of another individual without consent. For the individual consumer, the theft of an identity can mean many things.
How do thieves get information?
There are hundreds of ways thieves steal personal information from consumers every day. These range from sifting through the discarded trash of a victim, to swiping bankcard information using card skimmers. ID thieves are resourceful in their relentless pursuit of our personal information and employ a number of techniques to get it.
Phishing emails—Thieves send bogus emails in the name of companies, government agencies and individuals riddled with links requesting personal information.
Smishing—This involves sending messages to personal cell phones with phony offers to entice consumers into divulging personal information.
Phony phone messages—These are left on your phone requesting an urgent call regarding your credit or bank account. Thieves pose as bank representatives and ask you to “verify” personal or account information.
Card skimmers—These are devices commonly installed at gas pumps or other outdoor banking machines that retrieve account information from the magnetic strip of a debit or credit card.
Phony downloads—Cyber thieves use pictures, videos, or documents to trick you into giving them access to your computer. You may think you’re getting a look at something interesting, while in reality someone’s viewing your personal files.
What information can they get?
Thieves out to steal personal identifying information and account numbers use various methods to get information such as a person’s name, date of birth, Social Security number or driver’s license number. Though names and birthdates are not necessarily unique to one individual, when combined with other information such as a Social Security number or driver’s license number, a single identity emerges.
Federal and state statutes that protect personal information also include financial information such as checking and savings account numbers, Personal Identification Numbers, credit or debit card numbers, and electronic identification codes. Other personal information such as parents’ surnames, electronic signatures, and biometric data including fingerprints and voice recognition signatures is stolen every day to commit fraud in your name.
IRS Identity theft
The United States Internal Revenue Service investigates identity theft to help victims of fraud as well. In recent years refund fraud has become a major problem for taxpayers. Thieves not only file illegal refund claims, but also use personal information to collect government benefits like disability or Social Security. Sometimes the IRS gets information that a taxpayer received more income than they actually did, or had a change in wages that reflects fraudulent use of an individual Social Security number. This can result in the reduction or interruption of government benefits. The IRS supplies consumer information on protecting personal data and how to report identity theft through it’s website, http://www.irs.gov/uac/Identity-Protection. The FTC allows you to report identity theft as well.
What thieves do with your personal information?
Identity thieves find many ways to use your personal information for fraudulent purposes. These range from draining your bank account to obtaining employment and filing tax returns in your name. Identity thieves sometimes even use your name and personal information when arrested by law enforcement. The consequences of having your identity stolen can be devastating. While most financial institutions and credit providers don’t make the victim directly financially liable for fraudulent charges or purchases, the emotional toll and time it takes to sort out this type of theft is immense.
Thieves find a number of uses for your personal information including:
- Opening new accounts for cell phones, gas, electric, or water
- Applying for health insurance or obtaining medical treatment
- Charging merchandise or services online
- Creating duplicate credit cards and selling them for profit
- Obtaining cash through “payday loan” centers in multiple locations
- Stealing government documents such as birth certificates, Social Security cards and driver’s licenses to use or sell
- Securing employment and filing tax returns
- Receiving government benefits such as Social Security disability, public assistance, food stamps, and
- Veteran’s benefits
Signs you may be a victim of ID theft
Every time thieves use, or seek to use your personal information or accounts they leave behind a trail of evidence. There are several things to look for that may indicate you’ve been a victim of identity theft.
If you apply for credit and are offered very high interest rates, or are denied due to unusually low credit scores, someone may be opening accounts in your name and letting bills go delinquent.
When checking your credit report you find that it contains false information or charges to accounts that aren’t yours, it’s possible identity thieves have cloned your credit or retail card.
You may be a victim of identity theft and in need of identity theft protection if you receive notice from the Internal Revenue Service that more than one income tax return was filed in your name, or that records indicate a difference in wages reported.
If your state or federal benefits have been reduced or eliminated for no other reason, and without notice, it’s possible someone else is collecting them in your name or has used your personal information on government forms.
Identity Theft statistics
Last year alone approximately 12 million people fell victim to identity theft in the United States alone. The financial loss to banks, retailers and other lending institutions totaled a staggering 50 billion dollars. Theft statistics point to the fact that another 100 million Americans may be in need of personal identity theft protection since identifying information can be stolen through corporate or government databases every day.
How to prevent identity theft
While thieves are savvy at coming up with new ways to steal your identity, there are some things you can do to help with identity protection.
- Always dispose of personal information by shredding documents and mail first.
- Never share passwords, Social Security numbers, or your mother’s maiden name with anyone you didn’t contact first.
- Always use firewalls, anti-virus/spam software, and password protection features on your computer.
- Never send personal information using an open, community wi-fi signal.
- Always consult the user’s manual or a professional before disposing of a computer or other device that stores personal information.
- Never download photos, videos, or music from unfamiliar sites that may contain viruses or links that could jeopardize your personal information.Sometimes, despite all you do to protect your good name and reputation, prevention is not enough.