Identity theft is at an all-time high. More than 15 million consumers fell victim to some kind of identity theft in 2016, according to Javelin Strategy & Research. This is up from about 13 million in the prior year.
As technology evolves with new ways to keep thieves out of our wallets, hackers find new ways to steal credit cards and other sensitive information.
You may think it can’t happen to you. You’d be wrong. No one is immune to identity theft, but armed with current information and a bit of caution, you can outwit even the smartest thieves.
Dangers of identity theft
Identity theft occurs when someone uses credit cards or personal information as if they were you. Essentially, they are trying to get you (or someone else) to foot the bill for whatever they purchase. They may also use your information for non-monetary things that can show up on your credit report, like employment.
Identity theft can ruin your chances of getting new credit, cause you to pay higher rates and affect your job hunt. To avoid such major headaches, here’s what you need to know about identity theft and how it can be prevented.
- Thieves don’t need your credit card number
You’d be surprised at how far a thief can go with just one or two pieces of information. Let’s say they know your email and the answer to one of your security questions. That may be enough for them to gain access to one of your accounts. Once they are in one, the criminal may learn more information that can help them access more accounts.
- You may be able to protect yourself by finding small charges
Have you ever noticed an unauthorized charge for a small amount of money? It may be one penny or one dollar. Thieves use these small amounts to test whether a card is still active, so you may notice a small charge before a larger one. If you do, contact your bank immediately.
- ATMs and store card readers aren’t immune to tampering
It’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of security when you see the familiar bank logo, but if something looks off, trust your gut. Thieves can tamper with ATMs and store card readers too. Look for loose keypads and card slots. And be wary of strangers loitering nearby. They may be attempting to read your pin.
- You’re more susceptible to identity theft on vacation
There are a few reasons why thieves prey on tourists. Tourists are prime targets because they are in an unfamiliar place and more likely to be disoriented. People are also more relaxed on vacation, which means they are likely to let their guard down. Enjoy your vacation, but stay alert, especially in public places.
- It is extremely difficult to recover from identity theft
It’s much easier to prevent identity theft than to clean up your credit report after fraud. Follow steps and use your best common sense skills to keep your information safe, so you don’t have to spend time and effort trying to prove that your identity was stolen.
Tips for preventing identity theft
If you don’t have time to review your credit card and bank statements or daily activity, you can hire a company to do this and alert you of any suspicious activity. There are many companies that offer this service and a simple Google search will turn up various options.
If you’re monitoring activity on your own, look into what your credit cards offer. You may be able to setup phone notifications or email alerts every time you make a purchase. This may seem overwhelming, but it offers a way to review purchases as they happen. If something seems off, you can contact your bank immediately.
Shred any documents with sensitive information. Even if it is a only a generic invitation to apply for credit, shred the document. It’s better to be safe.
Avoid accessing financial information, such as logging in to your bank or credit account, while on public wifi. Also, avoid making payments with your credit card when on public wifi. If you don’t want your neighbor to have the information you’re sharing online, don’t share it.
To be safe, don’t store credit card information in your browser or on any website for future use. The fewer places your card information exists, the more protected you are.
What to do if your identity is stolen
First, review the charge to determine whether it was one you made. Sometimes, the company name listed on your bill is different than the company name you purchased from. It may also be a subscription you didn’t remember starting. If you have any doubt, call the company listed on your statement. If the charge is clearly unauthorized, call your bank and ask to speak with someone in the fraud department. They will walk you through the next steps.
Next, order a copy of your credit report and review it for suspicious activity. If you notice anything, be sure to report it as fraud to the bank or lending institution. You may also report any unauthorized items to the credit bureaus as fraud, but beware that the act of doing so may prevent you from opening any new accounts for a period of about six months. This will help prevent thieves from opening any new accounts in your name.
Note: There are three credit bureaus (Transunion, Equifax and Experian). You must report the same item to each bureau separately.
Contributor: Trevor McDonald