Identity Theft Protection: The Reality
Identity theft is a dark reality for many and a looming threat to all. Forty-four percent of US consumers rate identity theft (ID theft) and banking fraud as their primary concern. According to the FICO Survey, US Consumers fear ID theft more than they fear a terrorist attack or even their own death. As the victim count rises, we search for ways to protect ourselves from identity thieves. Although complete immunity to ID theft is untenable, a thorough understanding of the personal data components that enable this crime can greatly decrease your odds of becoming a victim.
Personally Identifiable Information (PII)
In order to prevent identity theft one must first acquire an adequate knowledge of the elements of the heist. Personally identifiable information is any data that distinguishes one person from another. This includes any type of records or documents that are specific to one individual, and no one else.
PII can be either non-sensitive (information that can be easily gathered from public records and can be transmitted in unencrypted form) or sensitive (information which if disclosed, could result in serious harm to the individual and should only be transmitted in encrypted form.) Examples of sensitive information include biometrics, medical records, personally identifiable financial information (PIFI), or unique identifiers like an individual’s passport or SSN’s.
Name, date of birth, and Social Security Number are often referred to as “the Holy Trinity” as the combination of the three is enough to successfully steal someone’s identity. Unfortunately the Internet houses birthday databases which are freely available and can be used to reveal the DOB, the state, and the city of any given individual. If your name is found on one of these birthday databases, it would be advisable to request removal of that information. Criminals looking to steal your identity are eager to obtain every piece to solve the puzzle, elements of this puzzle include mother’s maiden name, driver’s license or driver’s license identification number, credit card information, or passwords and PINS. It is imperative that you keep this information close to you.
Who are the victims?
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics more females than males fall victim to identity theft and among racial groups Caucasians experience it at a higher rate than others. The most prominent age group among victims is 25 to 64 and when comparing household income brackets, those with an annual income of $75,000 or more were targeted the most.
Digitally connected consumers, or those that have extensive social network or online shopping activity are at a 30 percent higher risk of fraud. These consumers are at greater risk because their personal information is so widely available to fraudsters scowling the net. Offline consumers, those that have little to no online presence, have a lower risk of fraud but they incur higher fraud amounts because of how long it takes them to detect it. These consumers take more than 40 days to realize their information has been compromised.
How to Stay Safe
There are many ways shield against identity theft. The first, and perhaps most obvious is to secure your Social Security number. Only give it out when absolutely necessary and do not carry your Social Security card in your wallet. When you receive an unsolicited request for your personal information by phone, mail, or online assume that it is a scam and do not respond. If you come across anything suspicious or any type of red flag immediately contact the three credit reporting agencies to request a freeze of your credit reports.
Another way to fight identity theft is to collect your mail promptly and place a hold on your mail when you’re out of town. This is important when battling low-tech criminals who will go straight to your mailbox to find any personal information. On that same token, shredding receipts, credit offers, expired credit cards, etc. will ensure that you aren’t accidentally providing dumpster divers with pivotal personal information.
Even more important than clutching your physical documents, is locking up your PII’s online. Installing firewalls and virus-detection software on your home computer will provide you with a better defense against hackers. It’s advisable to create complex passwords that identity thieves cannot easily guess and also to stay abreast to the news to see if any companies that might have access to your personal information haven’t experienced a data breach. Enabling multi-factor authentication (MFA) is a successful deterrent for hackers because it requires several separate pieces of evidence to authenticate the individual and allow access.
Updating sharing and firewall settings when you’re on a public wi-fi network is worthwhile and exclusively using a virtual private network (VPN) when making transactions is the only advisable option. Setting up security provisions is key when avoiding identity theft but it’s crucial to be aware of the signs of penetration so that you’re able to act fast and suffer the least amount of damage.
Is it Too Late? Indicators of Identity Theft
The majority of identity theft victims do not realize that they have been wronged until the crime has already negatively impacted them. The most effective attitude to have is to assume that your personal information has been compromised at one point and to work rigorously to watch out for warning signs that would confirm the assumption that someone else might be using your identity. They key is to watch alerts and tend to alerts quickly.
Religiously reviewing your credit card and bank account statements is a good way to spot any withdrawals or credit/debit charges for goods or services that you did not authorize. Indicators of identity theft would generally manifest themselves through checks bouncing as a result of unsanctioned withdrawals or calls from debit or credit card companies warning of possible suspicious activity on your account.
It is good practice to examine your credit report once a year to be certain that it doesn’t include accounts that you have not opened. Abrupt changes to your credit score may indicate that someone else is using your credit cards. Other signs include receiving credit cards in the mail that you did not apply for or not being approved for loans because your credit report signals that you are not credit worthy.
If you receive notification from your post office informing you that your mail is being forwarded to another unknown address it is safe to assume that your mail has been redirected by a fraudster. Another clue to cement this assumption would be your bills for services like gas, water, or electricity not arriving on time. This could mean that your mail was either redirected or stolen.
Tax identity theft is a significant facet of ID theft that should not be overlooked. If you’ve received an IRS letter or notice stating that more than one tax return was filed using your SSN or that IRS records indicate you received wages from an employer unknown to you, chances are your identity has been stolen. Other signs that your personal data has been breached in order to commit tax fraud is an IRS notice stating that you owe additional tax or that you’ve had a tax refund offset, or that you’ve had collection actions. If there is anything suspicious or noteworthy the suggested course of action is to contact and inform the IRS.
Identity theft can happen to anyone at any age and although there are common target characteristics, there is no surefire way to predict when a hacker will strike. Fighting this battle blindly, our only defense is to both take preventative action and daily monitoring to ensure that when your PII is compromised, the consequences are minimal.