Identity (ID) theft is a crime where a thief steals your personal information, such as your full name or social security number, to commit fraud. The identity thief can use your information to fraudulently apply for credit, file taxes, or get medical services. These acts can damage your credit status, and cost you time and money to restore your good name. You may not know that you are the victim of ID theft until you experience a financial consequence (mystery bills, credit collections, denied loans) down the road from actions that the thief has taken with your stolen identity.
There are several common types of identity theft that can affect you:
Child ID theft - Children’s IDs are vulnerable because the theft may go undetected for many years. By the time they are adults, the damage has already been done to their identities.
Tax ID theft - A thief uses your social security number to falsely file tax returns with the Internal Revenue Service or state government.
Medical ID theft - This form of ID theft happens when someone steals your personal information, such as your Medicare ID or health insurance member number to get medical services, or to issue fraudulent billing to your health insurance provider.
Senior ID theft - ID theft schemes that target seniors. Seniors are vulnerable to ID theft because they are in more frequent contact with medical professionals who get their medical insurance information, or caregivers and staff at long-term care facilities that have access to personal information or financial documents.
Social ID theft - A thief uses your name, photos, and other personal information to create a phony account on a social media platform.
Take steps to protect yourself from identity theft:
Secure your social security number. Don’t carry your social security card in your wallet or write your number on your checks. Only give out your social security number (SSN) when absolutely necessary.
Don’t respond to unsolicited requests for personal information (your name, birthdate, social security number, or bank account number) by phone, mail, or online.
Watch out for “shoulder surfers.” Shield the keypad when typing your passwords on computers and at ATMs.
Collect mail promptly. Ask the post office to put your mail on hold when you are away from home.
Pay attention to your billing cycles. If bills or financial statements are late, contact the sender.
Review your receipts. Ask for carbon copies and incorrect charge slips as well. Promptly compare receipts with account statements. Watch for unauthorized transactions.
Shred receipts, credit offers, account statements, and expired cards, to prevent “dumpster divers” from getting your personal information.
Store personal information in a safe place at home and at work.
Install firewalls and virus-detection software on your home computer.
Create complex passwords that identity thieves cannot guess easily. Change your passwords if a company that you do business with has a breach of its databases
Order your credit report once a year and review to be certain that it doesn't include accounts that you have not opened. Check it more frequently if you suspect someone has gained access to your account information.
If you are a victim of identity (ID) theft, report it immediately. The Federal Trade Commission and your local police department are critical in filing the complaint. Once you file the ID theft with the FTC, you will have an ID theft affidavit. Print and take this with you to file the crime with the local police and get a police report. These two documents together are your identity theft report. Your identity theft report will be very important as you resolve the problem with creditors, banks, and any other companies where fraudulent accounts were set up in your name. You may also report specific types of identity theft to other agencies.
Long-term Care Identity Theft - Report a claim to the long-term care ombudsman in your state, if the theft was a result of a stay in a nursing home or long-term care facility.
Tax Identity Theft - Report this type of ID theft to the Internal Revenue Service and your state’s Department of Taxation or Revenue.
In addition to federal government agencies, you should also report the theft to other organizations, such as:
Credit Reporting Agencies - Contact the three major credit reporting agencies to place fraud alerts or freezes on your accounts so that no one can apply for credit with your name or social security number. Also get copies of your credit reports, to be sure that no one has already tried to get unauthorized credit accounts with your personal information.
Financial Institutions - Contact the fraud department at your bank, credit card issuers and any other places where you have accounts. You may need your ID theft reports from the police and Federal Trade Commission in order to report the fraud.
Retailers and Other Companies - You will also need to report the fraud to companies where the identity thief created accounts, opened credit accounts, or even applied for jobs in order to clear your name.
Synthetic identity theft is a new version of identity theft. In traditional ID theft, the thief steals all of the personal information of one person to create a new identity. However, with synthetic ID theft, a thief steals pieces of information from different people to create a new identity. For example, the thief may steal one person’s social security number, combine it with another person’s name, and use someone else’s address to create a brand new identity. The thief can then use this fraudulent identity to apply for credit, rent an apartment, or make major purchases.
Unfortunately, synthetic ID theft is difficult to detect because the fraud isn’t directly tied to just one person. Fraud alerts and monitoring services would not be able to stop or prevent these scams. Also, children’s social security numbers are often targeted in these frauds, because no one would be checking their credit scores until they are much older.
While you cannot prevent synthetic ID theft, you should still get copies of your credit report to check for accounts you did not open. Also, contact the credit reporting agencies to ask if there is a fragmented file (a sub-account that uses your social security number but not your name) attached to your main credit file. If this is the case, you may be the victim of synthetic identity theft. Report all cases of identity theft to the Federal Trade Commission.