Three essential steps to avoid and recover from identity theft
Having your identity stolen can be both financially and emotionally devastating. Victims describe feeling helpless and fearful, as though they had been physically robbed.1 It happened to 14.4 million Americans in 2018 alone, with criminals illegally accessing personal information (such as social security number, credit cards, bank accounts, and passwords) for illicit economic gain.
Are you vulnerable?
Most identity theft complaints are made by people between the ages of 30 and 59.2 Among those at highest risk are—wait for it— heavy users of social media. Oversharing of personal details on social platforms is like leaving your front door unlocked—an invitation to virtual fraudsters. High income individuals are also tempting targets, since most have multiple credit cards and heavy-duty online shopping habits.
How can you tell if you’ve been hacked?
According to the Federal Trade Commission, common warning signs include: 3
- Unexplained withdrawals from your bank account and/or charges on your credit card.
- You stop receiving bills or other mail.
- Your checks are refused by merchants.
- Debt collectors call about debts that aren’t yours.
- You get medical bills for services you didn’t use.
- Multiple tax returns are filed in your name.
If your identity is stolen, what should you do?
Stop the Bleeding
Immediately notify your financial services providers: bank, credit union, credit card companies, mortgage company and others. Explain what happened and have your accounts closed or frozen. Change all your passwords and personal identification numbers (PINs).
Blow the Whistle
Go to Identitytheft.gov and create an identity theft report. This report will provide the foundation for investigators and help guide you through the recovery process. Also alert the Social Security Administration and IRS.
Heal the Wounds
It can take six months or more to resolve the damage to your financial life. Work with financial providers, agencies and other companies to re-establish your accounts and good name. Recognize the emotional suffering that accompanies identity theft. Talking to family, friends, or a counselor can help relieve the stress and anxiety.
Fortify Your Defenses
Help prevent a future breach by taking your security game to the next level:
- Check your statements every month for suspicious activity
- Don’t create easily guessed passwords (like “password”) or use the same user ID and password for multiple sites. Change passwords frequently.
- Subscribe to a credit monitoring agency or identity protection service to alert you to fraudulent activity. Some fraudsters wait months or years to start using stolen information.
- Be alert for phishing. Never share financial information in emails, online or by phone with strangers, or with someone claiming to work for your bank or the IRS.
- Have financial documents transmitted digitally, rather than by snail mail.
- Shred pre-approved credit cards you receive in the mail.
- Keep your Social Security card and checks at home in a secure place. Limit the number of credit and debit cards you carry with you.
- Don’t include your full birthdate on social media.
- Avoid using public Wi-Fi whenever possible—it’s like attending a convention of identity thieves.
Financial and emotional well-being are intertwined, and having your identity compromised can affect both. Taking steps to protect your identity and learning what to do if fraudsters target you or your family can help you feel empowered. In the same vein, taking steps to improve your financial habits can help you become more financially and emotionally confident overall.
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2021-126121 Exp. 9/23