A good time to check if someone is using your identity is before it even happens.
One of identity theft’s several downsides is how people discover they’ve become a victim in the first place—by surprise. They go to rent an apartment, open a line of credit, or apply for financing, only to discover that their finances or reputation has taken a hit because of identity thief.
And those hits add up, particularly when you look at the dollars involved. In 2020, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reported $3.3 billion in financial losses from 4.7 million reported cases of fraud, a 45% increase over the year prior. Of those reports, identity theft was the leading fraud category, accounting for 29% of fraud incidents.
What’s at risk?
Plenty. Depending on the type and amount of information an identity thief gets their hands on, they can harm your finances and reputation in several ways, including:
- Open utility accounts in your name
- Use your credit cards for purchases
- Hijack your email
- Claim healthcare expenses under your insurance
- Steal your tax refund
- Even use your identity when they’re arrested for a crime
Rather than ending up with a rude and potentially costly surprise of your own, you can get ahead of thieves by checking to see if someone is using your identity before it’s a problem or before it really takes root.
The Neiman Marcus breach: now is a good time to check your identity
Major data breaches that expose personal information seem to hit the headlines with some regularity, not to mention the many, many more that don’t get national or international press coverage. Most recently we have the Neiman Marcus breach, where this major retailer alerted 4.6 million customers that “an unauthorized party obtained personal information associated with certain Neiman Marcus customers’ online accounts.”
And as it is with many such breaches, it took quite some time before the theft of information was discovered. Per Neiman Marcus, it’s believed that the breach occurred in May 2020 and only discovered in September of 2021. Potentially compromised information included:
- Names and contact information
- Payment card numbers and expiration dates (without CVV numbers)
- Neiman Marcus virtual gift card numbers (without PINs)
- Usernames, passwords, and security questions of Neiman Marcus online accounts
Whether or not you have reason to suspect that your information got caught up in this recent large-scale breach, it serves as a good reminder that any time is the right time to check up on your identity. Acting now can save headaches, potentially big headaches, later.
How you can protect yourself from identity theft right now
Quite a bit of identity theft prevention begins with taking stock of the accounts and services you have in your name. This ranges anywhere from bank accounts to public utilities and from credit cards to loans, all of which contain varying degrees of personal information about you. With a sense of where your personal identity is being used, you can better look for instances where it’s being misused.
Ways you can spot for possible identity theft include:
Track your bills and when they are due.
If you stop receiving a bill that normally comes to you, such as a utility bill or for a department store credit card, that could be a sign that a thief has changed the mailing address and has potentially hijacked your identity.
Check your statements and accounts for irregularities.
This is rather straightforward, yet it reminds us how important it is to look at our statements closely. Charges that you didn’t ring up or that seem slightly higher than normal are a surefire sign that you should follow up with the bank or company involved and let them know of possible fraud.
Review your credit reports.
In the U.S., you have annual access to free credit reports from the major credit reporting agencies. Not only will this give you a sense of your credit score, but it will also show the credit that’s open in your name, along with addresses associated with your identity. Spotting an account that you haven’t signed up for or seeing an address of a residence that you’re not renting are other common signs that your identity may have been compromised.
Sign up for credit monitoring services.
With the number of accounts many of us have these days, a credit monitoring service can help you stay on top of what’s happening in your name. Often offered through banks, credit unions, and even insurance providers, credit monitoring can alert you in several instances, including:
- When a company checks your credit history.
- If new loan or credit card appears in your name.
- Changes in your address or phone number.
Overall, credit monitoring can act as another set of eyes for you and spot potential identity issues. Different services provide different levels of monitoring, so consider reviewing a few options to find the one that works best for you.
Consider an identity protection service.
One like our own Identity Protection Service will monitor several types of personally identifiable information, alert you of potentially stolen personal info, and offer guided help to neutralize the threat—in addition to offering several preventative steps to help keep theft from happening in the first place. With this set up on your computers and smartphone you can stay in the know and address issues immediately.
Five extra steps for preventing identity theft
Along with keeping an eye on what’s happening with your identity online and elsewhere, there are a few more things you can do to make it tougher for thieves to steal your identity.
1) Protect your digital files and devices.
Given all the banking and shopping we do on our computers and phones, installing and using comprehensive online protection software is a must these days. It puts several layers of security in place, such as creating complex passwords automatically, shielding credit card info from prying eyes, and protecting your privacy and data online by connecting with a VPN. In short, online protection software acts as a solid first line of defense.
2) Protect your accounts with strong passwords and multi-factor authentication.
As mentioned above, comprehensive online protection software often includes a password manager that can generate strong, unique passwords for each of your accounts and remember them for you. It’s extra protection that makes life a lot easier for you by managing all the accounts you’re juggling. Also, use MFA (multi-factor authentication) on the accounts that give you the option, which makes it harder for a thief to crack your accounts with a password alone.
3) Shred sensitive documents when you’re done with them.
Sensitive documents come in all forms. Top-of-the-line examples include things like tax returns, bank statements, and financial records. Yet there are also things like your phone and utility bills, statements from your doctor’s office, and offers that come to you via mail. Together, these things can contain personal information such as account numbers, your full Social Security Number, the last four digits of your Social Security Number (which can still be useful to thieves), and other information that may uniquely identify you. You’ll want to dispose of sensitive documents like these so that they can’t be harvested by hackers.
For physical documents, consider the low-cost investment of a paper shredder to help ensure they don’t fall into the wrong hands when you are done with them. (And let’s face it, they’re fun to use!) For digital documents, simply deleting a file is not enough – online protection software is a great resource that often includes a digital document shredder, designed to render the data practically unusable when you’re ready to trash the file.
4) Keep your Social Security Number to yourself.
Your Social Security Number is one of the most prized possessions a thief can run away with because it is so closely associated with you and things like your tax returns, employment, and so on. Keep it stored in a safe location rather than on your person or in your wallet. Likewise, be careful about giving out your SSN. While organizations like the IRS, your bank, and employer require it, there are other organizations who do not—but may ask for it anyway. (Doctor’s offices are a prime example.) If you get such a request, ask them what they intend to use it for and then ask if another form of identification will work instead.
5) Keep an eye out for phishing attacks.
Phishing attacks are one of the primary ways identity thieves steal personal information. Whether they come via a direct message, on social media, or through email, text, or phone calls, thieves use them to harvest your personal info by posing as a legitimate organization—such as in this recent IRS phishing scam. Phishing is a topic all unto itself, and you can check out this quick read to see how you can spot phishing scams and protect yourself from them.
Like any criminal, identity thieves do their dirtiest work in the shadows—quietly stealing money under your nose, or worse, as we outlined above. By shining a light on your identity and keeping regular track of what’s happening with it, you can spot unusual activity right away. Even the small stuff is important. A co-worker of mine once saw an incorrect address listed on his credit report. Turned out, that address was used to rack up several large charges at a retailer, which he was able to fix with the aid of the credit reporting agency and the retailer in question.
No doubt about it. Identity theft is indeed on the rise, and your best bet to avoid such a nasty surprise is to keep an eye on your digital identity the same way you keep an eye on your actual wallet.