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What Is Identity Theft and How Do You Recover From It?

The internet is a big place. While it’s changed the world for the better — making our daily lives that much easier! — it can also be a playground for cybercriminals who would love to get their hands on our personal information.  

When this happens, it can result in identity theft. While it can be scary to deal with, there are things you can do to protect yourself and recover from this type of cybercrime.  

In this article, we’ll tell you what identity theft is and how to recognize its various forms. We’ll also go over what you can do to bounce back after your identity has been taken.  

What is identity theft?

Life online presents so many cool opportunities, but it can also make us vulnerable to cybercriminals. But that doesn’t mean you need to get offline. A little knowledge can go a long way in keeping you safe. It all starts with understanding what identity theft is.  

Identity theft is when someone steals your personal or financial information to commit fraud or deception, typically for monetary gain. Depending on their goals, they might take a variety of information. Unfortunately, this is something most people will experience — either directly or indirectly — at some point in their lives. 

What makes identity theft really troublesome is that the consequences can go beyond just affecting your credit score. You might experience issues while trying to get jobs, see an increase in your auto insurance rate, get a surprise tax bill, and even find out you have a criminal record! Not to mention it can cost a lot of time and money to fix.  

Just as important as it is to understand what identity theft is, it’s also important to know the different types of identity theft so you can keep an eye out.  

Types of identity theft 

You work, play, and shop on the internet every day, but you shouldn’t let the fear of identity theft stop you from doing what you enjoy online. All it takes is a little information to outsmart online criminals — including knowing the different types of identity theft. They include: 

  • Financial identity theft: A thief will use your identity for their own financial gain. The cybercriminal might hack your bank account to steal funds or use your credit card for online shopping. If you have a good credit history, they might even use your identity to buy a home or rent an apartment.  
  • Medical identity theft: A thief will use your identity to secure medical services. With your health insurance information, they can get prescription drugs, buy medical equipment, or even pay for medical care and procedures. Whatever your insurance doesn’t pay for will then get billed to you.  
  • Criminal identity theft: This happens when a thief is busted for a crime and gives the arresting officer your information. The criminal might have stolen your actual ID or created a fake one, and you won’t know what’s happened until the crime shows up on your background check (or, worse, you get a court summons in the mail).  
  • Synthetic identity theft: A thief will use your identity to create a fake person. The new persona will have your birthdate, Social Security number, and address — but a different name. They can then use this persona to do things like apply for loans and get credit cards 
  • Child identity theft: A thief will use a child’s identity to commit fraud. Kids usually don’t have bank accounts or debt. The thief may use the child’s identity to do things like buy homes or get social benefits.  

How does identity theft happen?

How does an identity thief get your information? Any time you make a purchase, subscribe to a website, file a tax return, or do anything else online, you share your personal information. And some cybercriminals are pretty good at getting that information for themselves.  

Here are a few of the most common ways thieves can get access to your data 

  • Phishing scams: A thief might message you over email or social media pretending to be someone they’re not. They may claim to be calling on behalf of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), a sweepstakes, or even a family member. After that, the criminal will ask for money or your personal information.  
  • Data breach: When you fill out webforms, open new accounts, or make purchases online, your personal information is likely saved in a company database. Most companies do their best to keep your information secure, but hackers are always hard at work trying to gain access to it. If the hackers can breach your information, they can sell it for a profit.  
  • Internet of Things (IoT): It’s not just computers that have internet access anymore. Hackers might also try to steal personal information from your smartphone, tablet, or another internet-compatible device. 
  • Social media: People share all kinds of personal information on social media. In addition to data like your birthday, address, and phone number, criminals can learn about your family members, pets, and interests. They can use this data as potential password information when they try to break into your online accounts. 
  • Physical theft: Some thieves are old-fashioned. A criminal can take your credit card, ID, smartphone, or computer and use it to steal your identity. If you throw away documents like paystubs or checks without shredding them first, criminals can use them to get your personal data, like your bank account numbers. 

What personal information is generally taken when identity theft occurs?

The type of information that hackers take during a breach can vary widely. It just depends on what information a company stores, what data the cybercriminal can access, and even the purpose of the attack. A hacker might be making a political statement or simply “showing off” their skills. 

During a breach, hackers target information that can be resold on the dark web or used for identity fraud, like debit card or credit card accounts. They might also collect data like people’s full names, email addresses, passwords, Social Security numbers, and driver’s license numbers. 

How to recover from identity theft

Dealing with identity theft can be stressful and a little bit scary, but we promise it’s not the end of the world. The important thing is to be quick about it and stay alert for signs of identity theft, like:  

  • A sudden dip in your credit score  
  • Mail addressed to your home with someone else’s name on it 
  • Calls from debt collectors about debts that aren’t yours 
  • Unexplained bills showing up at your home  

The good news is that if you’re ever the victim of identity theft, there are several things you can do to limit and reverse that damage. We’ll explore these steps in the next few sections. 

Contact the company where your information was stolen

Notify your credit card company, financial institution, or the business where the thief is using your data right away. For example, if the criminal is using your credit card number to buy clothing online, contact the store immediately. They’ll be able to stop any further purchases from being made.  

File a police report

Banks don’t like scams, either. Some banks may require you to show them a police report about your identity theft before they’ll refund any fraudulent charges or withdrawals. Call your local law enforcement office to report identity theft as soon as you can.  

Before speaking to an officer, though, take the time to go over all the information so you don’t leave anything out. Be as detailed as possible. Let the cops know how your sensitive information was used and what dates and times it was used. You may want to bring a copy of your bank statement as proof. 

Notify the three major credit bureaus 

One of the biggest pains about identity theft is that it can affect your credit score, which can affect your ability to do things like secure a business loan or buy a house. File a fraud alert with each of the three major credit bureausTransUnion, Equifax, and Experian — and let them know which activity on your credit report is false.  

File a report with the Federal Trade Commission

When you file a report with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), they’ll create a free recovery plan for you to deal with your identity being stolen. The FTC is a government organization that protects the rights of consumers. You can get started by visiting 

Consider investing in a comprehensive security plan

The best time to deal with identity theft is before it happens. When you sign up for all-in-one protection, like McAfee Total Protection, you’ll get $1 million of identity theft protection insurance.  

We’ll also provide identity monitoring to help catch threats to your information before they get out of hand. You’ll also get access to our Secure VPN and our quality antivirus and safe browsing software to protect you from threats like malware 

Browse confidently with award-winning identity protection 

You deserve to live your life online and enjoy the internet the way it was meant to be. That’s where McAfee can help — making the digital world a safe place for you and your family! 

We’ve got your back when it comes to your online identity with our identity protection service. When you sign up, we’ll keep tabs on up to 60 unique types of personal data, including your financial information. We’ll also notify you up to 10 months sooner than similar services if it seems like your identity has been compromised. And on top of $1 million of ID theft coverage, you’ll receive hands-on restoration support to get your identity back.  

See how McAfee can help secure your personal information online and give you peace of mind.  What Is Identity Theft and How Do You Recover From It?