How-to Guide: Identity Theft Protection, Detection, and Mitigation
One American falls victim to identity theft every two seconds. Although awareness and vigilance for identity theft have increased over the years, instances of the crimes continue to rise. Unfortunately, many victims do not realize a crime has taken place until months later. This is why you need to know how to protect yourself, detect a breach, and mitigate the damage.
Don’t fall for tax scams
The IRS doesn’t initiate contact with taxpayers by email, text messages, or social media channels to request personal or financial information. View the IRS’s web page about the latest scams targeting taxpayers.
The first thing to do to protect your personal information from being stolen is to be aware of the primary ways criminals obtain it. They often obtain personal data from the following sources:
- Lost or stolen wallet, checkbook, or credit card
- Stolen mail
- Dumpster diving
- Online transactions
- Skimming (obtaining debit/ATM card information by using a device attached to ATM machine that stores the card number and pin)
- Phishing (fraudulent communications, such as email, mail, text, phone, etc. — in which scammers pose as financial institutions, government agencies, or other trusted entities to steal personal information)
The best way to protect yourself is to be extremely cautious with your personal information. While this will be a constant chore, there are some habits you can develop:
Access our guide to how long you should retain individual records, which applies to both paper and electronic versions.
- Always be skeptical about to whom and how you provide personal information.
- Never enter personal information into a link provided in an email.
- Do not provide information to a representative that contacts you directly. Rather, hang up and call the number provided on your latest statement or on the credit card itself.
- Use a crosscut shredder to dispose of documents with any personal information (don’t forget prescription labels and documentation). Access our individual records retention schedule, which is designed to be a guide that applies to both paper and electronic records.
- Use only secured WiFi connections.
- Ensure websites are secure before entering personal information (typically indicated with an “https://” prefix rather than just “http://”).
- Observe ATM terminals for unusual devices before processing a transaction.
Detecting identity theft also involves learning what to look for and maintaining some good habits. First, there are some clues that may indicate your personal information has been compromised:
- Unexpected withdrawals from your bank account(s)
- Missing bills or statements
- Merchants declining your check or other method of payment
- Calls from debt collectors regarding debts that aren’t yours
- Medical bills for services you did not use
- Unfamiliar accounts or charges on your credit report
- Rejection of legitimate medical claims
- IRS notification of multiple tax returns filed in your name
- Notification from a company informing you that they have had a data breach
It is important to pay attention to these signs — don’t make light of them and treat them with urgency. You will notice some of these indicators require you to consistently monitor a number of items. To do so, get in the habit of:
- Regularly reviewing your bank account transactions — we recommend at least weekly
- Closely reviewing medical bills and insurance statements
- Maintaining a checklist of regular bills, statements, or other sensitive mail to make sure you receive them
- Reviewing of your credit report — monthly or quarterly is suggested, but at least annually. The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) requires that each credit reporting agency provide you with one free credit report every 12 months. It is important to alternate reporting agencies to ensure you have reviewed, in full detail, the completeness, accuracy, and timeliness of your credit reports. Each reporting agency is independent of one another and may contain different information.
Due to the ever-growing occurrences of identity crimes, many organizations focus on helping to make detection easier. On average, victims of identity theft spend 30 hours and $500 before the problem is resolved, however, credit-monitoring services offer a cost-effective option to minimize exposure. Services include credit monitoring, theft detection, and problem resolution. These services range in price from $5-$20 per month and offer a wide variety of support including:
- Providing periodical credit reports and scores
- Protecting computer and internet activity
- Monitoring use of your personal information
- Monitoring new credit applications
- Offering identity theft insurance
Taking preventative measures will certainly help reduce the chances that you will fall victim to identity theft, but cannot guarantee that it will never happen. Consequently, it is important to know the proper steps for quickly stopping the offenders to mitigate the impact, recover losses, and get your accounts back in working order. The Federal Trade Commission suggests following five steps.
Place a fraud alert on your credit reports
A fraud alert will allow you to limit the damage to what has already been done. Fraud alerts will prevent new accounts from being opened with your stolen information. Once you have placed a fraud alert with one of the credit reporting agencies, they are required to share the alert with the other two agencies.
If you believe you may already be a victim, or if you are at a high risk, you can place an initial fraud alert on your account that will last for a period of 90 days. Also, individuals that have documentation in the form of an identity theft report may place an extended alert on their accounts that will remain effective for seven years. Identity theft reports provide details pertaining to your specific instance. The report must contain a copy of the report filed with a law enforcement agency along with any other requirements the credit reporting agency requests.
Request and review a current credit report
Obtaining and reviewing a current credit report may lead to identifying additional instances of fraud. Be skeptical and investigate any items that appear out of the ordinary.
Close all affected accounts
To limit the financial and credit score damage identity theft may cause, it is essential that you close all accounts you believe may be compromised. Contact companies first by telephone and then in writing to ensure that your accounts have been properly closed. Any documentation obtained through these proceedings should be filed and used to restore any damage done to your credit score.
File a report with your local police
In order to prove to creditors that accounts and charges are fictitious, it is important to receive a police report. Be persistent if the police are unwilling to provide one. If necessary, contact other local police districts or even the state police to obtain a report.
File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission
By filing a complaint with the FTC, you are helping to identify trends and other important information that is essential in catching thieves and stopping new occurrences before they even happen. Information from the FTC is shared with other agencies and companies that will allow for a more efficient investigation.
- Identity Theft Clearinghouse
- Federal Trade Commission
- 600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
- Washington, DC 20580
Skepticism and discipline are keys to keeping critical information out of the hands of thieves. By taking precautions and maintaining good security habits, you can gain some peace of mind. For even more information and tips, check this identity theft resource page from the Federal Trade Commission.