Protecting Yourself Against Identity Theft

Additional Resources Identity theft is a growing but often hidden crime that involves the stealing of a person's identifying information. Victims of this type of theft may not realize what has happened to them for months or even years. Typically, most people only find out that they are victims of identity theft when they encounter the often devastating consequences of the crime. These consequences may include mysterious but serious tax penalties, or being summoned to court for debts they did not incur. Millions of Americans fall victim to identity theft every year, and each incident can cost thousands of dollars in losses and many hours of time to rectify. The damage that an identity thief can inflict upon a victim may linger for years or even last a lifetime.

What is Identity Theft and How Can it Affect You?

Identity theft is popularly defined as the act of assuming the identity of another person, in part or in whole. This typically means impersonating someone else for the purpose of fraudulent acts, such as obtaining a loan or to avoid paying taxes. The Federal definition of identity theft, however, does not require the actual use of a phony identity for fraudulent purposes. The willful act of acquiring someone else's identification information, such as a Social Security number, without authorization, is a Federal crime under the law 18 USC § 1028A, also known as "aggravated identity theft". In addition there are numerous state laws that prosecute this crime as well, and in many cases these laws are even harsher than Federal laws.

Victims whose identity have been stolen can suffer a wide range of consequences as a result of this crime. For example, they can find themselves liable for massive bills for medical or dental services. They may also be left to deal with large balances on credit cards they never opened, or home loans they never took out. In addition, an identity thief can clean out bank accounts or even private retirement accounts such as 401(k)'s. A person may even enter adulthood to find themselves confronted with tax liabilities and private debts incurred during their childhood, as a result of identity theft. Likewise, an elderly person could find themselves burdened with mysterious debts, sometimes incurred in their name by a child or relative. Victims of identity theft may not be able to obtain any form of credit as a consequence of this type of crime. Background checks for employment purposes may also turn up false but highly adverse information about a victim because of identity theft, which can result in the loss of employment opportunities.

  • Criminals use a wide variety of means to commit identity theft. This includes "social engineering", which means to trick someone into giving away personal information to someone they believe they can trust. More sophisticated criminals never confront their victim at all, instead resorting to breaking into databases stored online, where they can pilfer thousands of personal information records at a time.
  • Businesses may also be harmed when a criminal creates a totally false, or "synthetic" identity. This includes credit card and home equity loan companies that lend out money, only to find that the debtor doesn't exist at all, making it almost impossible to collect on the debt.
  • People who suffer identity theft may take years and spend thousands of dollars just to undo the damage that can be done to their credit and good name within a single day.
  • Identity theft is increasingly being used by terrorist and organized crime groups as a means to obtain funding for their activities. It is entirely possible that a victim may be arrested for terrorist acts that they did not commit, as a result of identity theft.

How to Prevent Identity Theft?

While there is no perfect way to avoid becoming a victim of identity theft, there are ways to severely limit one's level of vulnerability. A common method of preventing identity theft is to secure one's mailbox so that it can only be opened with a key. Another way is to use a cross-cut shredder to destroy personal documents before throwing them away, so that anyone going through the trash cannot piece the information back together to read it. In addition, it is never wise to give out personal information to someone over email, or during a phone call that the person did not initiate. Banks rarely if ever ask for identifying information via email, so if a consumer gets an email asking for this, they should report it to the bank immediately, and decline to comply with any such requests. Consumers can opt out of pre-approved credit offers, as well as prevent credit cards from being fraudulently opened in their name by placing freezes on credit reports. This freeze will prevent credit card companies from doing a credit check on the person, which is necessary to establish a new account.

In the age of the Internet it is always advisable for net surfers to stay up to date with the latest Internet security measures, including antivirus software, firewalls, operating system patches, and web browser security upgrades. When shopping online, customers should always require that a website be secure before they make purchases and share personal information. Any site that asks for credit card information, names, addresses, or other identification-related data, should start with an "https" as a prefix to their web address, instead of "http". This can also be verified by the presence of a "lock" icon which appears at the bottom of all major web browsers when visiting a secure site. This will reduce the likelihood that personal information will be intercepted on its way from a computer to the organization's website.

  • Early detection is a key strategy to limiting the damage that can be done by identity theft, or even preventing it. Consumers should routinely monitor their credit reports for suspicious activity, such as attempts to open mysterious credit accounts.
  • If a person's wallet is stolen they should report it immediately. Any items of personal identification that was lost should be replaced and changed, including but not limited to Social Security numbers and driver's licenses.
  • When getting rid of a hard drive, always completely wipe all data from the drive. Thieves may acquire used hard drives and mine them for sensitive personal information.
  • Computers are under constant attack by viruses, worms and trojans. One way to limit one's vulnerability to identity theft is to turn the computer off when it is not in use.
  • Personal documents left at home should be kept in a safe or other secure container which is difficult for thieves or visitors to access.
  • Beware of phishing. Phishing is when a website is created that poses as an otherwise trustworthy entity in order to collect personal information. Consumers are often lured to these sites by fraudulent emails. If at all possible, avoid going to any site that is linked via email and never share personal information on such a site.
  • Government entities collect and maintain databases of Social Security numbers and other critical forms of personal information from all citizens within their jurisdiction. Despite the best security measures a person can take, if a hacker breaks into those databases, they can potentially steal thousands or even millions of identities at a time.

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