Even if you’ve secured your home network and devices and you’re careful about how and with whom you share your personal information, you have no control over whether those entities that already have your sensitive data are taking the steps necessary to protect it. It seems that massive data breaches are making the news on a daily basis. So how do you know if someone has stolen your identity? What are the signs you should look for and what should you do if you’re a victim?
Identity thieves can use your information in a number of ways. Five of the most common involve opening new financial accounts, accessing your existing credit or bank accounts, stealing your tax refund, submitting claims with your health insurance provider, and filing for unemployment benefits in your name.
First things first…
If you observe any of the warning signs listed below or have other reasons to believe that your identity has been stolen, go to the Federal Trade Commission’s website at IdentityTheft.gov. There you’ll find instructions for reporting the crime as well as information that will help you to recover and secure your accounts.
New credit or service accounts opened in your name
The most effective method for detecting new accounts fraudulently opened in your name is to sign up for credit monitoring. Monitoring services will alert you if a new account is opened using your information. If you didn’t open it, chances are good that an identity thief did.
Organizations including Credit Karma, Experian, and Credit Sesame offer free credit monitoring services. Other highly-rated services charge fees starting at around $9 per month. An online search using the phrase “best credit monitoring service” will yield results from third-party sources such as Forbes and CNet that periodically rank these organizations and report their findings.
If your information was compromised in a data breach, the breached entity will sometimes offer free credit monitoring and perhaps even identity theft protection. Take advantage of these offers.
You can also get free access to your credit reports and review your accounts by going to AnnualCreditReport.com.
Someone is using your existing credit cards or withdrawing money from your bank account
Check your bank account and credit card statements regularly. Look for any transactions you don’t recognize. If you are set up for online banking, it’s a good idea to make logging in and checking your bank account transactions and balance a part of your daily routine. If you catch a fraudulent withdrawal soon enough, your bank may be able to stop or reverse it. Immediately report fraudulent credit card transactions to the card issuer.
If you have the option to set up alerts that notify you by text or email when a there is a new transaction, take advantage of that capability. This will allow you to be notified immediately, which gives you a better chance of stopping any fraudulent withdrawals before it’s too late.
Someone used your Social Security number to file a tax return in your name
You may not discover this crime until you’ve tried to file your tax return and receive a notification from the IRS that a return has already been submitted in your name. You could find out earlier if the criminal signs up for an online IRS account and you are notified that the account has been created. The IRS has an informative site at IRS.gov/newsroom/taxpayer-guide-to-identity-theft that lists other indicators of fraudulent tax filings and provides instructions for taxpayers to follow if they believe they are victims of this crime.
Someone else is using your health insurance
Carefully review any medical bills and explanations of insurance benefits you receive. If you notice any expenses you did not incur, you may be a victim of medical identity theft. Contact the service providers, let them know the charges appear to be fraudulent, and file your report through IdentityTheft.gov.
An identity thief filed for unemployment benefits in your name
You may receive a notification from your state’s unemployment office or your employer indicating that you filed for benefits when, in fact, you did not. Contact these entities immediately and let them know someone else has apparently filed an application using your information. Ask your state’s unemployment office what steps you need to take, if any, in addition to filing an identity theft report.
Data breaches have, unfortunately, become all too common. Whenever possible, limit the personal information you share with others. Once you’ve provided it, you have no control over how it is used or whether it is properly secured. Consider signing up with a credit monitoring service so that you’ll receive immediate notifications of any new account activity conducted in your name. If you have reason to believe you are a victim of identity theft, file a report as soon as possible at IdentityTheft.gov. Follow the recommendations provided there for limiting the damage and recovering from this crime.