Identity theft is more common and devastating than you think.
It’s not just losing money now.
The subsequent drop in credit score can hurt your chances of getting a mortgage, a car loan, or even finding employment.
In this article, I’ll show you exactly how to protect your identity from scammers, hackers, and eavesdroppers.
We’ll also cover what to do if your identity is stolen—and how to make sure you recognize it on time.
Read on for all the essential tips to avoid identity theft and stay safe both online and offline.
What Is Identity Theft?
In broadest terms, identity theft is somebody stealing your personal information and using it without your permission. Typically, identity thieves target vulnerable data like:
- Social Security numbers
- Credit card information
- Bank account details
- Login information to key websites (e.g., online banking)
Fraudsters can use this information to make unauthorized purchases, withdraw money from your account, or access paywall-restricted content. ID fraud encompasses everything from credit card skimming to Netflix account theft.
How to Spot Identity Theft
Before we cover how to protect your identity online, let’s get one thing straight:
A lot of victims don’t even realize what happened until it’s too late. If you recognize ID scams on time, you can still take measures like a credit report freeze to protect yourself.
Here are some signs your identity might be compromised:
- Bills and charges you don’t recognize are a rather obvious sign of account breaches. If you receive an invoice for an item you didn’t purchase or notice a suspicious charge on your account, your identity might be compromised.
- No bills in the mail could mean fraudsters have changed your billing address to keep you from receiving your statements. If you stop receiving your household bills, investigate the situation right away.
- Credit card, loan, or tax return rejections could also mean you were a victim of identity theft. Fraudsters could rack up expenses and ruin your credit score, leading to unexpected rejections, even if your credit history had been impeccable before.
If the IRS turns down your tax return due to a duplicate return, it could mean an ID thief already filed it for you—and collected the money.
Credit card companies will also report identity theft suspicions if they detect fraudulent activity. Treat each call from your creditors seriously and take steps to prevent it from happening again.
How to Protect Your Identity
There are multiple steps you can take to protect yourself from ID theft. Most of them are simple, free, and common sense.
However, most ways to prevent identity theft are surprisingly easy. They don’t require tech know-how and are mostly about staying on top of your affairs and avoiding risky behavior.
While these ID theft tips won’t prevent 100% of scams and fraud incidents, they will protect you in most cases—and they don’t require a lot of money or time.
Here are the main steps to prevent identity theft:
Keep Track of Your Accounts
First things first, make a habit of regularly checking your accounts.
Know what money goes in and what goes out. I’m not saying to track every cup of coffee (although you can), but you should know what your spending looks like.
Not only is this a good money habit, but it’s also a secure method of identity theft prevention. It’s the best way to spot abnormal charges and stop fraudsters on time.
Nowadays, contactless credit card readers are virtually everywhere. Scammers can attach devices that record your information to them without you even realizing it. Often, they will try to withdraw a small amount first—if you notice that transaction, you can stop them right in their tracks.
Check Your Credit Reports
This is where you can find information about all financial accounts in your name. So while checking with your bank is important, the report is where you’ll find the most complete documentation of your financial affairs.
Stopping identity theft is all about recognizing when it happened. But what if somebody got a credit card without you even knowing? They used your name, but none of your contacts. The bank wouldn’t tell you—the credit report will.
Contrary to some myths, you can see your report without hurting the credit score. Just go to AnnualCreditReport.com or one of the credit bureaus directly.
If you notice any discrepancies, report them right away—you have the right to dispute these transactions down the line and remove them from your credit history.
Limit Your Exposure
Protecting yourself from identity theft is easier when you have fewer accounts.
Granted, it can be tempting to get another credit card—and there is nothing wrong with that, as long as you can monitor it (and pay it on time). But the more accounts you have, the harder it is to keep track of all of them.
If you don’t stay on top of your finances, you might miss suspicious charges, a bill disappearing from your mail, or a skimming device being used.
Use Passwords Correctly
A large portion of our sensitive information is on the internet. That’s why it’s essential you know how to protect your identity online.
At this point, we all know the basics. Internet safety rules apply in this case too:
- Strong passwords have different case letters, numbers, and special signs.
- Your password shouldn’t be your birthday, your mom’s name, or any meaningful word, really.
- Don’t share your login details with anybody.
- Use a different passcode for every account.
But do we follow these tips to prevent identity theft? You tell me.
2020’s most common passwords were 123456, 123456789, and picture1. There are millions of people using insecure passwords—the type that only takes a couple of minutes to crack.
Plus, we can’t be bothered to come up with different passwords for each account, so hackers only need one login combo.
So please, protect your identity by actually following password common sense. Create secure passwords and come up with a different pass for every account.
You can’t remember them? You don’t have to. Password managers will keep the important information for you—but once again, be careful with the company you choose.
Stay Safe on Public Networks
WiFi eavesdropping is surprisingly simple on public networks.
All a hacker has to do is place themselves between you and the network. Any signal you send goes through the WiFi before going to its recipient. Since public networks often have poor security (some even keep the factory features), it’s very easy to hack them.
VPNs offer valuable protection against ID theft on public WiFi since they encrypt traffic before it even leaves your device. This way, even if an eavesdropper intercepts your signal, they won’t get any useful information out of it.
Apart from ensuring browser security, VPNs also prevent government spying and unlock international Netflix. Win-win-win!
If you don’t have a VPN on, it’s best to steer clear from open-access networks altogether. Or at least avoid logging in to important accounts through public WiFi.
Watch Out for Phishing Attempts
To prevent identity theft, never click on links that you don’t trust, especially when they come from suspicious-looking emails.
Phishing attacks are one of the most common ways of stealing people’s identity. Scammers will send an email trying to convince you to share personal information. They might pose as your bank, the Apple store, or even the café down the street.
Either way, the goal is to have you share your login details, payment information, or social security number with the scammers.
To prevent phishing and protect your identity:
- Double-check customer service emails to make sure they come from the usual address.
- Never enter your login information into an unfamiliar page.
- Avoid clicking links that look suspicious.
- Never download attachments or install any programs from potentially scammy emails. It’s often a Trojan horse program that collects your data without you even realizing it.
Attackers are usually trying to create a sense of urgency. For example, I once got a fake Apple invoice for a game I didn’t purchase. It directed me to a page where I could “dispute” the charge.
I managed to avoid identity theft by checking the sender. It wasn’t the usual Apple support email—though the branding on the email looked legit.
So whenever you receive an email urging you to act quickly, resist the impulse and double-check its legitimacy. Phishing scams are no longer emails from Nigerian princes—they can look very, very real.
Don’t Give Out Personal Information Over the Phone
Apart from sending emails, scammers might call you posing as your bank, mortgage lender, phone company, etc. No legitimate customer support agent will ask for personally identifiable information over the phone.
You already know how to protect your identity—by not sharing sensitive information before double (even triple) checking.
If an agent does ask for your data, make sure you get their name and credentials. Then you can contact the institution’s official phone line (e.g., the number you see on your bank statement) to check if the call was legit.
Once again, scammers might try and create a sense of urgency or panic—resist your first instinct and protect your identity by examining the situation.
Protect Your Documents
Not all scamming happens through elaborate schemes. Telephone tapping and eavesdropping still occur; dumpster diving for unshredded letters happens to this day.
Make sure all of your important documents are protected, ideally in a safe. Shred or tear up bank statements, bills, and any other documents that might have your personal information.
It’s one of the easiest identity theft protection tips and a habit to keep for life.
Identity Theft Prevention Software
Simple steps go a long way, but there are some factors you can’t control. This is where ID protection services come in. Not only do these programs safeguard your data, but they can provide legal assistance, too, should anything go wrong.
Our top favorite provider IdentityForce gives you advanced internet fraud protection, features a smart SSN tracker (to monitor for unfamiliar activity associated with your social security number), and insures you against ID theft.
Credit Monitoring Vs. Identity Theft Protection
While credit monitoring tools can be helpful to protect you from identity theft, they are not as safe as ID protection programs.
A credit monitor simply keeps track of borrower behavior and warns users if their credit score drops. It’s an excellent way to stay in the loop with your finances—which is a critical factor in keeping fraudsters away.
An ID theft protection tool, though, does much more.
For example, LifeLock tracks your credit but also keeps you safe during P2P sharing, watches out for you on the dark web, and even provides ID recovery experts on-call 24/7. It offers some of the best ID theft protection according to Reddit and other platforms—and It’s one of our top choices, too.
To see our top picks, check out our best ID theft protection choices for 2021.
How Does Identity Theft Happen?
The most common ID theft scams include:
- Data breaches, where hackers attack entire databases to steal information in bulk
- Phishing attacks that convince you to share personal information with the scammers (e.g., by making you think it’s a legit email from your bank)
- Malware, which spies on your computer without you realizing
- WiFi hacking where the bad guys intercept the messages you exchange with the network, gaining access to your passwords and personal information in the process
Though they usually happen over the internet, ID theft scams also exist offline.
The documents you get over regular mail also contain personally identifiable information. Criminals have been digging through unshredded mail longer than the internet has been around—and taking advantage of the data they find.
Credit card skimming with devices that store your card information and plain old credit card theft are other very popular forms of identity fraud. Thieves can then use your information to make unauthorized purchases, rack up debt, and even ruin your credit score.
What to Do If You Are a Victim of Identity Theft?
Protection against identity theft is always better than damage control. Simple steps like password-protecting your devices and credit report monitoring will keep you away from trouble most of the time.
Still, there are internet security factors you can’t control, like data breaches. This is why it’s so important to know how to recognize ID theft and how to limit the damage that fraudsters can cause.
What to do if your identity is stolen?
First things first, make sure this is what actually happened. The number of people who report stolen ID only to realize they made those charges themselves is astounding.
Keep an eye on your accounts and check your credit report regularly—this way, you will know a potentially fraudulent charge when you see it.
Are you certain it was a fraud? It’s time to file an FTC identity theft report. You can do that by calling 1-877-438-4338 or at IdentityTheft.gov.
In some cases, you might also want to file an identity theft police report. When you go to the FTC, you will get a Theft Affidavit.
Bring that document to the police to get an Identity Theft Report—with it, you can get the charges off your credit report, stop creditors from collecting the debts, and place a fraud alert on your accounts.
You can also place a security freeze on your account to stop people from viewing your credit report. Since credit history is needed to take out a loan or a new credit card, the freeze will prevent fraudsters from opening an account with your information.
Finally, if any new charges appeared on your account, you can dispute the fraudulent information. When you report ID theft to credit bureaus, they can remove that data from your report and ensure your credit score doesn’t suffer.
You can find plenty of identity theft resources online, but we highly recommend starting with the FTC information. Heed their advice on staying safe online—it will help you protect yourself from fraud in the future.
ID theft happens more often than you think.
In 2020, the FTC received 4.8 million stolen identity reports—and these are the people who did notice. In a world where most of our information is online, data breaches and hackers are a constant threat to our personal information.
How to protect yourself from identity theft?
It starts with being mindful of your finances. Regularly checking your bank accounts and credit reports ensures you won’t miss suspicious transactions.
Know how to protect your identity online—set strong passwords, avoid phishing attempts, and stay safe over public WiFi.
For an extra layer of security, consider fraud protection software like Norton LifeLock or IdentityForce. You can check out our best ID theft protection suggestions in our dedicated review article.
Some of the best ways to protect yourself from ID theft include:
- Choosing safe passwords and password-protecting all your devices
- Staying on top of your finances by regularly checking your bank accounts and credit reports
- Internet safety measures like not opening suspicious emails, avoiding malicious software, and being extra careful on public WiFi
- Protecting your physical documents in a safe and shredding anything that contains personal information
- Identity theft prevention software like IdentityForce, which keeps hackers at bay and insures you in case of a stolen identity
Fraud protection includes staying safe on the internet and offline. Anything that contains your personal data can be stolen and used by ID thieves.
Creating strong passwords, shredding documents with personal data, and keeping up-to-date with financial accounts—these are all free identity theft protection techniques that can save you a lot of trouble down the line.
If your identity has already been stolen, make sure to report it with the FTC.
You can then place a fraud alert on your credit report—either the standard one year or an extended, seven-year fraud alert.
With this in place, businesses should confirm your identity before they can give you a loan or a credit card. A fraud alert does not hurt your credit score, but it will prevent fraudsters from taking advantage of your stolen data.
As an identity theft victim, you can dispute credit history items that came from the scammers. Debt collectors can’t come to you looking for this money and the fraudulent debt will not hurt your score.
The final step is preventing identity theft from happening again.
Think about your “high-risk” habits—e.g., never shredding documents with sensitive information or having an easy-to-guess password. This is probably how the scammers got your information.
Even if that wasn’t the case (data breaches happen every day and are pretty much out of your control), it’s still a good idea to take preventive measures.
Consider purchasing identity theft protection software like Equifax Identity Protection, Norton LifeLock, or IdentityForce.
I think someone stole my identity! Now what?
Start by looking at all of your financial accounts and credit reports. All US citizens can see their credit report once a year—it contains all the information about financials associated with your name.
If you already used up your credit report check, go through your account statements carefully. Contact the institution to alert them and consider reporting the identity theft to the FTC.
This is the best way to know for sure. Plus, you can then dispute the charges to take them off your credit history.
Some of the most common ways of identity theft include:
- Data breaches
- Phishing attacks
- Card skimming
- Stealing information on documents (e.g., unshredded trash)
- Phone scams
Knowing what fraudsters usually do also tells you how to protect your identity.
Start with a strong internet security foundation and passwords. Do not share sensitive data over public networks and delete suspicious emails without opening them.
Secure your offline life by never sharing personal data over the phone, only paying with a card in safe locations, and destroying documents that contain private information.