When you think about identity theft, you might picture a criminal eavesdropping with pen and paper in hand as someone reads a credit card number over the phone.
That kind of scenario still occurs, but it’s practically old-fashioned. That’s because today’s thieves can steal your personal information by using far more sophisticated techniques. And they’re doing it more often than ever: Since 2010, identity theft has gone from affecting 10.2 million people a year to 13.1 million people annually.
How they do it
Today’s thieves can learn a lot about you by simply visiting your social media pages—especially if your settings are public. One common practice is to piece together bits of information you share on various websites. Just a few tidbits they can learn about you include your date of birth, your city, your mother’s maiden name, what bank you “like” and what Internet provider you complain about in your posts. That can ultimately help them decode your passwords and access your personal accounts.
“All your data has value, and it’s being aggregated,” says Eva Velasquez, president and CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC), a nonprofit that helps
consumers prevent and resolve identity theft issues.
Last year’s massive data breach at Target highlighted how thieves can steal identities through a third-party vendor. It’s important to note that public Wi-Fi connections in locations such as coffee shops, hotels and airports are even less secure. The moment you open your bank account, check your email or shop online, you could be revealing information to a hacker.
Traditionally, criminals used to steal credit cards and then maxed them out. Now they’re getting craftier. Some use your identity to get tax refunds, medical procedures or government services such as unemployment benefits.
“It’s lucrative for thieves, and the chances of them getting caught are slim,” says Velasquez. Plus, even if a thief does get caught, the sentences for white-collar crimes are usually not as harsh as ones for violent crimes.
Some of the more commonly known signs that you might be a victim of identity theft include getting collections notices or calls regarding debt you don’t remember incurring; finding unfamiliar accounts or charges on your credit report; seeing unexplained withdrawals from your bank account; and having an especially difficult time applying for a loan or renewing a passport or license.
Lesser-known red flags that you might be at risk include the following:
- You get a medical bill or an explanation of benefits for procedures you didn’t receive.
- A health plan won’t cover you because your medical records show a condition you don’t have.
- Your health plan rejects a legitimate medical claim because the records show you’ve reached your benefits limit.
- The IRS notifies you that more than one tax return was filed in your name and/or that you have income from an employer you don’t work for.
- You find errors on your Social Security statement.
A word of warning
The ITRC suggests you keep the acronym SHRED in mind when it comes to preventing identity theft:
S: Strengthen privacy settings and passwords (always use eight characters, upper case and lower cases, and at least one number or symbol).
H: Handle your personal identifying information (like your driver’s license and passport) with care.
R: Read your credit reports annually. (Order a free one at annualcreditreport.com.)
E: Empty your purse or wallet so you’re not carrying around personal documents like birth certificates or Social Security cards.
D: Discuss these tips with family and friends.
Unfortunately, there is no foolproof way to prevent identity theft. And it can happen to anyone. (Just read this woman’s real-life tale of identity theft.) That’s why it’s worth considering identity theft protection insurance. An insurance professional like an Erie Insurance Agent can tell you more about this affordable–and increasingly necessary–coverage.