The statistics relating to identity theft paint a grim picture. According to the Federal Trade Commission, identity theft has been the top consumer complaint for 15 years running. Overall, around 7 percent of people aged 16 or older are victims of identity theft, and the FTC receives a whopping 2 million-plus complaints every year. While many people can resolve their cases fairly quickly, 29 percent of victims needed a month or more to take care of the situation, and around 14 percent had an out-of-pocket loss greater than $1.
Fortunately, while these statistics show how common identity theft is, it is not an inevitable situation. There are steps that you can take to help avoid becoming a victim, and to do so, it’s important to first understand the different types of identity theft.
Identity Theft 101
As the FTC reports, there has been a rapid increase in the number of “imposter scams,” where criminals claim to be government officials. The Bureau of Justice Statistics notes that around 85 percent of the identity theft incidents involved false use of existing account information — like a credit or bank card. Another type of identity theft is employment identity theft. As the government gets stricter with immigration laws and employers must check employee documentation, some illegal immigrants are finding ways to use a false name along with that person’s Social Security number. When the victim of this type of identity theft goes to file taxes, it will look like the person did not accurately report all income, which can lead to an IRS audit, penalties and more.
Tips to Stay Safe
In order to protect your personal information as much as possible, the FTC suggests a four-pronged approach:
- Knowing who you share your information with.
- Properly storing and disposing of your personal data.
- Determining who needs your information and why before divulging it.
- Keeping security features up to date on your computer.
For example, keep your financial documents like tax records, bank and credit card statements and the hard copies of your Social Security cards safely locked away at home, and be aware of where your purse or wallet are at all times — especially when you are shopping or at work. Purchase a shredder and shred all credit card offers, receipts, bank statements and other sensitive documents. Instead of leaving mail for your carrier to pick up, take it to the post office. This is especially true when you are paying credit cards and other bills by snail mail.
If You’re a Victim of Identity Theft
As Identity Theft notes, if you discover that someone has used your personal information, immediately contact the companies where you know the fraud occurred, as well as your bank and credit card companies. Call the three major credit companies and ask for copies of your report, and report the identity theft to the FTC. Next, call the non-emergency line at your local police department and file a report. Once these first steps have been completed, close any accounts that were falsely opened in your name, and to be on the safe side, contact your utility and cell phone companies and the IRS to report what happened.