Whether it’s a stolen credit card or Social Security number or a completely stolen identity, odds are you or someone you know has been affected by identity theft.
In 2017, an estimated 16.7 million people in the U.S. were victims of some sort of identity fraud or theft, according to Javelin Research. Javelin classified “identity theft” as the unauthorized access of personal information, and “identity fraud” as the use of that information for financial benefit.
So what are the most common types of identity theft/fraud? And how can you better protect yourself against being a victim? Here are some common types defined, and some actions you might consider to combat them:
Financial identity theft. This is the most common form of identity theft -- when someone uses another person's information for financial gain. For instance, a fraudster may use your bank account or credit card numbers to steal money or make purchases, or use your Social Security number to open a new credit card.
What you can do: Check your bills, accounts and statements regularly. Some criminals may start by making small credit or debit charges in hopes you don't notice them, so review the statements carefully. If you see a charge you don’t recognize, contact your bank or credit card company.
In the case of new accounts created in your name, you may not receive a bill or statement. Placing a security freeze or a one-year initial fraud alert on your credit reports may help prevent access to open new accounts.
In addition, check your credit reports from each of the three nationwide credit bureaus – Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion – for any accounts you don’t recognize. You’re entitled to a free copy of your credit report from each bureau once a year through www.annualcreditreport.com. You might also consider a credit monitoring service that will notify you of key changes to your credit reports.
Tax identity theft. This type of identity theft involves fraudsters getting access to your personal information, which is then used to file a tax return and get a refund – your refund.
What you can do: Be alert for phone calls, texts and emails purporting to be from the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS will not contact consumers using these methods, and won’t threaten legal action. Never provide any personal information in response to an unsolicited phone call, email, social media message or text message.
If you find your tax return is rejected because someone has filed a return in your name already, contact the IRS. You may need to file a fraud claim and receive a PIN to use on future tax returns. In addition, if someone has filed a tax return in your name, that means they already have at least some of your personal information. You might want to review your credit reports carefully and consider placing a security freeze on them.
Medical identity theft. In medical identity theft, a fraudster will use your personal information to receive medical care in your name.
What you can do: Review any Explanation of Benefits statements you receive from your health insurance for any mistakes or unfamiliar charges. If you see any, report them to your insurance company. Check with your doctor to ensure your medical records are accurate. If you start getting bills for medical services you didn’t receive, call the provider and dispute them.
Treat your medical identity the same way as you would any other sensitive information. And be aware of scammers who may contact you about a "recent breach" and attempt to get your personal information.
Employment identity theft. Identity thieves may use your information to get a job or pass a background check.
What you can do: Be wary of any potential employers asking for credit or bank account information for the purposes of a background check, particularly if they haven't interviewed you yet. In addition, be wary of any communication from a personal email address instead of a company email. The federal government’s E-Verify site can show you all the employers that have checked your records, so you can see if there are any unfamiliar ones. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has more information on employment identity theft and E-Verify.
Child identity theft. Most children under 16 don’t have credit reports, so it’s possible for a fraudster to open credit accounts in their name undetected. Some child identity theft victims may not learn of the activity until they apply for student loans or a job.
What you can do: Check with the three nationwide credit bureaus to see if your child has a credit report. If so, you can file an FTC Identity Theft Report and take other action, such as placing a security freeze on your child’s credit report or locking it. See more from the FTC on child identity theft.
Senior identity theft. Senior citizens may be particularly vulnerable to identity theft because they may be more trusting and less able to recognize a scam. The types of identity theft they may face are the same as anyone else: financial identity theft, tax identity theft and medical identity theft, for instance.
What you can do: Encourage the senior citizens you know to place a security freeze on their credit reports or lock them, particularly if they don’t need access to credit on a regular basis.
Estate identity theft: This occurs when a fraudster uses the personal information of a deceased person to steal money or open accounts.
What you can do: Make sure the three nationwide credit bureaus place a “death notice” on the person’s credit reports after someone’s death. See this article on other credit steps to consider after a relative’s death.
Criminal identity theft: All identity theft is criminal, but this particular type means someone who is arrested provides your information to law enforcement. You wouldn’t be able to detect this until consequences arise – a speeding ticket goes unpaid, for instance, and a judge issues a bench warrant for your arrest.
What you can do: Consider limiting the amount of personal information you share on social media, as you never know who might access it. If you are a victim of criminal identity theft, contact law enforcement immediately. The Identity Theft Resource Center has some other information about criminal identity theft.
Synthetic identity theft: In synthetic identity theft, fraudsters can create fake identities using fake or real information, or a combination of the two. For instance, an identity thief might use a real Social Security number but use a name that’s not associated with that number. Children and deceased people can be vulnerable since their Social Security numbers typically aren’t actively used.
What you can do: Regularly check your credit reports, as well as those belonging to seniors and, if applicable, your children. Consider an identity monitoring service which scans the “dark web” for Social Security numbers that may have been accessed. You might also consider a placing a security freeze on credit reports.
With any type of identity theft, a key to minimizing damage is detecting it early. Checking your credit reports, credit card and bank statements is one way to spot any suspicious activity and take immediate action.