Despite our best efforts and our assumptions, identity theft can happen to anyone. In fact, cases of identity theft have increased dramatically in the past few years due to the pandemic. In 2018, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) received under 300,000 reports of identity theft. Just three years later, in 2021, the FTC received 1.4 million reports of identity theft.
With the growing concern for identity theft, it is important to be vigilant when protecting your information. One way to do this is to understand common identity theft myths and the truth behind them.
Most people assume that if they are ever targeted by a scam, they will be able to identify it. Until recently, scams, especially email scams were relatively easy to spot. A call saying you won the lottery in a state you’ve never visited, or an email from a wealthy king in a foreign country who would like to leave you all of his money? Not only do these situations seem incredibly unlikely, but the emails themselves are typically littered with misspellings, strange email address, and odd requests that make them easily identifiable as a scam.
But now scammers have learned to better disguise their attempts at fraud, whether the scam is by phone or email. To protect yourself, it is essential that you do your best to spot identity theft scams. Be wary of any unknown caller or emailer. If anyone calls or emails you to confirm personal details, such as your full name, birthday, address, and bank PINs, do not share information with them! If one of these calls makes you concerned for your accounts, hang up and call a customer service line for that account.
With so much of our lives are online, it is easy to assume that your identity will most likely be stolen there as well. From online billing to data breaches, there are a variety of ways that hackers could access our information online.
However, the truth is that more than half of all identity theft still happens offline! In fact, your physical mail can be the easiest place for a thief to find sensitive information about you. Credit card bills, bank statements, medical records, drivers’ licenses and passports can all be delivered through the mail. By stealing your mail, thieves can find valuable information that they can use against you. Another easy way to gain this information is through your trash. If you don’t dispose of those documents correctly, people can find them very easily.
The best way to protect yourself and your mail is by opting for a secure mailbox. When sending mail, go to a post office and drop it through a letter slot inside the building, or hand it directly to a postal worker. For receiving mail, purchase a mailbox with a lock, or rent a post office box. Never leave your mail in an unsecured box overnight. If you are going out of town, put a hold on your mail. And most importantly, if you are missing an important piece of mail, contact the sender immediately! When disposing of important documents, always shred or burn them to ensure that thieves cannot access your personal information.
If your identity is stolen, it can effect a lot of things. Everything from your finances to your medical information to your job can be effected by identity theft. So, it only seems natural that you would find out, or be notified, right away if your identity had been stolen. Plus, aren’t credit card companies and banks supposed to look out for you?
Unfortunately, the truth is that most people do not notice identity theft right away. In fact, it takes an average of 34 days for identity theft to be detected! Banks and credit cards do have systems that can be used to monitor your finances, but sometimes these are not triggered until the end of a billing cycle. If identity thieves target your medical information, you may not know for even longer.
To help protect your identity, it is important to be vigilant in reviewing your spending, utilities, medical insurance, tax documents, and information from your employer. Additional precautions should also be considered. Some banks and credit cards allow you to set up text alerts to notify you if large amounts of money have been spent or removed. You can also pay for a third-party service to monitor your identity and notify you faster if any fraud is attempted.
Most people assume that if their identity will be stolen, it will be in a data breach, or by some other sort of hacker. While it is true that hundreds of thousands of people have had their information compromised in these breaches, it is not always these mysterious thieves you need to look out for.
In fact, the truth is that your family and friends have easier access to your personal information that online hackers. A friend could one could commit identity theft if they use your medical insurance to cover a prescription; a spouse could commit identity theft by using your credit to get a loan; a parent could commit identity theft if they use their child’s Social Security number to open a credit card.
To protect yourself, ensure that your important documents are kept in a secure place even when your friends or family are over. Monitor your credit report for bank accounts and lines of credit that you don’t recognize. No one wants to suspect their loved ones of identity theft, but being aware of your important documents and credit report can go a long way.
Identity theft is most often talked about in regards to our finances. We always hear terrible stories about stolen identities that result in thousands of dollars of fraudulent charges, wrecked credit and the people that have to rebuild their lives afterwards.
While identity thieves do often tend to target finances, the truth is that there are several other ways that identity thieves can target you. A thief could use your identity to access your medical insurance and tax returns. A thief could also use your identity instead of theirs in in court. A thief can even use your identity when applying for a new job, or to receive unemployment benefits.
If you suspect identity theft, check more than just your credit report. Check your insurance statements, explanation of benefits, billing statements from doctors. Check for unfamiliar utility bills, statements from services you have never used, or contracts from companies you are unfamiliar with. Check to ensure that you have received all of your tax documents, and that your tax return has made it to you if you get one. You can even check to see if unemployment has been filed in your name by checking with the IRS, or if your name is on any arrest records by checking with your local police department.
The Financial Justice Initiative is a joint project between Terrell Marshall Law Group and Schlanger Law Group, whose goal is to help educate consumers about their legal rights. If you are experiencing identity theft, we encourage you to read our other resources. If you believe your rights are being violated, contact FJI to schedule a free case consultation.