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What is Identity Theft, and How to Prevent It

What is Identity Theft, and How to Prevent It

Identity Theft is a rising problem in the United States. It is defined as the unauthorized use of an individual’s personal information, in order to commit fraud or criminal acts. Common information that is targeted by identity thieves includes names, social security numbers, drivers’ license numbers, and other unique identifying information.

In 2017, almost 15 million American consumers were victims of identity theft, which is an increase of almost 8% from the previous year. The amount stolen for 2017 was estimated to be $16.8 billion dollars.

The most common types of identity theft fall into the six categories listed below. They are ranked from most common to least common:

  • Employment- or tax-related fraud
  • Credit card fraud
  • Phone or utility fraud
  • Bank fraud
  • Loan or lease fraud
  • Government documents or benefits fraud

Financial identity theft can come about in a few different ways:


Lost or Stolen Wallet or Bag


Ever lost a wallet? Left a handbag behind in a public place? These items typically contain a wealth of personal documents: credit cards, social security numbers, licenses, and even passports. Identity Theft criminals can use these to make unauthorized purchases with your credit cards, open new lines of credit under your name, obtain housing, and apply for loans.

Keep a close eye on your belongings when you are out and about or traveling, and take pictures of all documents (front and back) so you can quickly report them lost or stolen and change the numbers if your wallet or handbag are lost or stolen. Most banks and credit cards feature fraud protection – but you need to report potential fraud as soon as there is any cause for concern.


Electronics such as Smartphones and Tablets


Many of us bring our phones and tablets everywhere we go or leave a laptop on a table at the library or coffee shop while we duck into the restroom. These devices contain personal emails, banking access and stored passwords that can be quickly captured by identity thieves. Using passcodes, locking your devices when not in use, and installing the appropriate software updates can do a lot to prevent identity theft from your electronics.


Trash / Recycling


It is hard to imagine identity thieves going through your trash, but it is a common practice. Anything you dispose of in residential or business trash or recycling containers has the potential to be captured by identity theft criminals. Protect your information by utilizing a shredder for anything you are throwing out or recycling that contains personal information.


Snail Mail


Even in today’s digital world, we still rely heavily on regular mail. If you use an unsecured and unlocked mailbox, you run the risk of identity thieves getting their hands on the personal information contained in your tax documents, bank and loan statements or taking advantage of pre-approved credit card or financing offers in your name. Subscribing to electronic bills and statements and using a locked mailbox or mail slot in the front door can protect you from this type of identity theft.


Online Data


We do so many things online these days, such as online shopping, and online banking.  These types of activities can expose us to identity theft through unsafe connections, password security issues, and insecure websites. To prevent becoming a victim of identity theft, use an antivirus software and firewall, only shop through secure domains (signified by “https” in the web address), and take the time to come up with unique, hard-to-guess passwords that do not repeat from site to site.


Online Scams


Even the most careful email users have been vulnerable to sophisticated email scams. Referred to as “phishing”, these often come across as emails from trusted sources, such as departments at work, or your bank, and request that you confirm personal information, such as social security numbers or dates of birth. These are then used to steal your identity. Carefully reverse check the email address that request personal information – you will often spot spelling mistakes and inconsistencies that tip you off about these being fraudulent. Also keep in mind that personal information is usually verified in person or by phone, but by email.

Preventing identity theft takes some planning and diligence, but it is much easier than recovering from it. If you confirm that your identity was stolen, you can work directly with your bank and creditors to change account numbers and have them watch for fraudulent activities. In serious cases, you may need to utilize a paid recovery service to help, which can track activities that occur in your name and notify you quickly. In extreme cases, people have had to declare bankruptcy to start fresh with their financial and credit history.



Ben is a Digital Overlord and Chief Security Officer at InfoTracer who takes a wide view from the whole system. He authors guides on entire security posture, both physical and cyber. Enjoys sharing the best practices and does it the right way!

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