December 18, 2023

Understanding identity theft & how to protect yourself

Understanding identity theft & how to protect yourself

An invasion of privacy can be unsettling, and in some cases, it can also be extremely dangerous. Identity thieves steal your personal and financial information, which they then use for various types of fraud. Unfortunately, you may be left responsible for debts you didn’t incur and even crimes you didn’t commit.

The National Council on Identity Theft Protection estimates that identity theft has caused $10.2 billion in consumer losses so far in 2023. With phone scams becoming more dangerous than ever, it’s critical to practice vigilance and preparedness to protect your identity from thieves.

Identity theft can be scary, and the recovery process is often lengthy and stressful. With the right knowledge and a scam blocker services such as Robokiller, you can keep your personal information private and help protect yourself from identity theft.

Identity theft vs. identity fraud: Understanding the differences

Although the two go hand in hand, it’s important to understand the differences between identity theft and identity fraud.

What is identity theft?

Identity theft occurs when someone steals another person’s identifying information, typically with the intention of selling it on the dark web or using it to commit fraud.

Identity theft can be done in many ways. A thief might steal your wallet to gain access to your driver’s license as well as your credit, debit, and health insurance cards. Alternatively, they may plant a skimming device on a local ATM to intercept your card details. Other criminals solicit information without physical contact, using robocalls, smishing scams, and malware to execute their schemes.

What is identity fraud?

Identity fraud is often the next step after identity theft, and it occurs when the thief fraudulently uses someone else’s personal information.

Identity fraud can take many forms, including:

  • New accounts in the victim’s name
  • Applications for loans or lines of credit
  • Applications for new passports and identification cards
  • Falsified medical records and claims
  • Criminal records for crimes the victim didn’t commit

Identity fraud can damage your credit score and tarnish your reputation, preventing you from getting legitimate loans or even renting an apartment. In some cases, it can impact your health records and your legal standing.

Key differences and overlaps

While identity theft is the act of stealing information, identity fraud is the actual use of that stolen information. In many cases, identity thieves steal identities for the purpose of committing identity fraud.

The many faces of identity theft

Identity theft occurs in many ways, and some are less obvious than others. Learn how the different types of identity theft work so you know when you see them.

Financial identity theft

Many scammers commit identity theft so they can later commit financial fraud. They may use your checking and savings accounts, open new ones in your name, or apply for loans and new lines of credit. These unpaid debts bring down your credit score, and you’re responsible for paying them off. This form of identity theft can quickly cause financial duress and instability, potentially affecting your ability to pay bills or feed your family.

Medical identity theft

Sometimes, identity thieves use stolen personal information to receive medical treatment or submit fraudulent claims. Using information like your name, Social Security number, and health insurance account details, scammers can make doctor’s appointments, purchase prescription medications, and file false claims. This can even affect your health records, as the criminal’s conditions and treatments may mix into your file.

Criminal identity theft

In the case of criminal identity theft, a scammer presents your information after being arrested for a crime. They might give the police your Social Security number or even provide a fraudulent copy of your driver’s license. Even though you didn’t commit the crime, this creates a legally legitimate criminal record in your name. In addition to being held responsible for the thief’s offenses, you could be arrested for failure to appear in court for a summons (and charge) you didn’t know about.

Synthetic identity theft

Synthetic identity theft happens when a fraudster creates a new identity by combining elements of yours (like your Social Security number) with additional information they’ve fabricated. In this type of identity theft, the criminal might actually use new accounts “responsibly” to build up a credit history and raise credit limits. This makes the scam less obvious when they finally use up your credit, as it may look like a responsible borrower going through financial struggles rather than a clear case of identity theft.

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Recognizing the signs of identity theft

It may take some time to realize you’ve become a victim of identity theft. The sooner you recognize the signs, the sooner you can report the crime and start a recovery plan, so it helps to know how to spot them quickly.

Unusual account activity

Keep an eye out for notifications that someone has attempted to access your accounts from unfamiliar locations, on unrecognized devices, or at unusual times. If it wasn’t you, that means someone else is trying to break into your accounts. You may also receive two-factor authentication (2FA) codes you didn’t request, which indicates that a scammer may already have your username and password.

Unexpected bills or charges

If you’re billed for a product or service you didn’t order or receive, someone else may be using your identity. You may also notice charges on your bank or credit card statements that you didn’t authorize. This means someone is actively using your financial accounts, which is a form of identity fraud.

Alerts from financial institutions

Many banks, credit card companies, and financial services offer mobile updates that alert you to transactions, login attempts, and other account activity in real-time. These notifications can help you catch suspicious activity as soon as it happens, allowing you to take immediate action. However, note that many scammers send fake mobile alerts to trick you into revealing personal information.

How to protect yourself from identity theft

Identity theft can have severe, long-term consequences. Fortunately, an understanding of proper fraud-prevention practices (also known as “good security hygiene”) can help you reduce your risk and protect yourself from identity thieves.

Effective cybersecurity practices

  • Vet before you connect. Don’t accept requests on social media or matches on dating apps before reviewing the person’s profile for signs of a bot, scam, or otherwise suspicious figure. Scammers often use social media and dating apps to connect with people and siphon their personal information.
  • Use antivirus software and scam blockers. Install high-quality antivirus software, malware protection, and scam-blocking services. Robokiller stops 99% of dangerous scam calls and texts from reaching your phone.
  • Be careful with public Wi-Fi. It’s best to avoid public Wi-Fi because you never know who else may be connected. If you do connect to a public Wi-Fi connection, use a virtual private network (VPN) to protect your data and IP address.
  • Enable two-factor authentication. Whenever 2FA is available, add an extra layer of security to your accounts by requiring a private passcode (sent to you by text or email) in order to log in.

Safeguarding personal and financial information

  • Don’t add contact information to your online profiles.
  • Never send personal details or transfer money without verifying the recipient’s identity.
  • Use virtual cards when making purchases online.
  • Use strong, varied passwords and change them regularly.

The role of credit monitoring

Credit monitoring can be a proactive measure against fraud and identity theft, even if you haven’t noticed any warning signs that you’ve become a victim. Much like monitoring your individual bank and credit card statements, monitoring your credit allows you to quickly discover fraudulent activity. 

Whether you monitor your own credit or use a credit monitoring service, the practice can alert you to suspicious activity like:

  • New accounts opened in your name: An account in your name that you didn’t open is a major red flag that someone has your identifying information.
  • Hard inquiries: Hard inquiries occur when a lender checks your credit after you apply for a loan, credit card, or line of credit, meaning your information was used in such an application.
  • Changes to personal information (e.g., the name or address associated with your credit file)
  • Personal information found on the dark web (e.g., your email addresses, login credentials, PIN codes, and Social Security number)

If credit monitoring turns up accounts you didn’t open, inquiries you didn’t apply for, or personal information that’s been changed or compromised, you may be a victim of identity theft.

Credit monitoring can’t prevent fraud, and it doesn’t automatically notify the authorities when red flags are found. However, it can help you notice fraud quickly so you can take action. 

Responding to identity theft: Immediate steps to take

If you’ve become a victim of identity theft, it’s critical to act right away. Identity theft recovery can be difficult, but immediate action may improve your chances of recovering your identity and having fraudulent charges reimbursed.

Reporting and damage control

There are several organizations that may help minimize damages from identity theft.

1. Alert the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)

2. Notify the three major credit agencies and request a fraud alert and credit freeze on each account

3. Contact your financial institutions

  • Inquire about fraud prevention services like account monitoring.
  • Close accounts that may have been compromised.
  • Request new debit and credit cards.

Legal recourse and recovery process

Victims of identity theft have legal options that may help them restore their identity and recover financial losses incurred due to fraud.

  • File a police report. Identity theft is a serious crime and should be reported to the police immediately. You may need to provide a copy of a police report to reverse unauthorized charges or remove fraudulent information from your credit file.
  • Request reimbursement for fraudulent charges. Your bank or credit card company might offer fraud protection services that reimburse you for charges you never authorized. Time is often a factor, however, so it’s important to notify your financial institution quickly.
  • File a lawsuit. It is possible to file an identity theft lawsuit, but recovering lost funds this way may not be simple nor guaranteed. The criminal who stole and/or used your identity must be caught in order to be sued. Unfortunately, these types of criminals are notoriously difficult to catch. Even if they’re apprehended, they might not have the money to pay you. If your information was leaked during a data breach, you may be able to sue the company that was breached. However, this can also be difficult and time-consuming, and the business you sue might claim your information could’ve been leaked from another company’s data breach.

Recovering from identity theft can be a long, arduous, and uncertain process, so it’s best to avoid the need for it altogether.

Staying a step ahead of identity thieves

Identity theft and fraud are the ultimate invasion of privacy, but there are ways you can keep yourself safe and secure. By recognizing the warning signs, safeguarding your personal information, and using a comprehensive scam blocker like Robokiller, you can enjoy sound identity fraud protection.

Using a robust algorithm based on machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI), Robokiller stops 99% of harmful spam calls and scam texts from getting through to your phone. Our customizable scam-blocking features can bolster your defense and help protect you from phone-based fraud attempts. Plus, with personal data protection, Robokiller also helps you remove your information from data broker sites scammers use to find scam targets in the first place.

When it comes to protecting your identity, it pays to be proactive. Start your 7-day free Robokiller trial and pull the plug on calls and texts from identity thieves.

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What exactly is identity theft, and how does it occur?

Identity theft occurs when a scammer steals a target’s financial or personally identifying information. The criminal can then sell the stolen information or use it to assume the victim’s identity themselves.

How is identity fraud different from identity theft?

While identity theft is the actual theft of a person’s personal and financial information, identity fraud is the act of using it fraudulently. Identity thieves can use victims’ identities for a multitude of purposes, from applying for loans and new lines of credit to receiving medical treatment and getting away with crimes.

What are the first signs that I might be a victim of identity theft?

If you’ve become a victim of identity theft, you may notice login attempts from unrecognized devices, 2FA codes you didn’t request, or unfamiliar charges on your bank and credit statements. You may also receive mobile alerts from financial institutions regarding potential fraud.

How can I protect my personal information from identity theft?

You can protect yourself from identity theft by safeguarding your personal and financial information. Use unique, complex login credentials for your online accounts, change them frequently, and don’t share them with anyone. Never reveal confidential information via phone call, text message, or email unless you’re absolutely sure you trust the person on the other end.

What should I do if I discover I've been a victim of identity theft?

If you find out you’ve become a victim of identity theft, it’s vital to take immediate action. Close any compromised accounts and cards, place a fraud alert on your credit file, and report the crime to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to create a recovery plan. You should also file a police report with local law enforcement.

Can identity theft affect my credit score?

Identity theft can affect your credit score in a number of ways. Identity thieves may use your existing credit, open new accounts, and apply for loans, all without making any payments. These factors can decrease your credit score, and they may leave you on the hook for any money “you” borrowed.

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