We live online these days, sharing everything from vacation pictures to what we eat for breakfast on the internet. The internet is also useful for daily activities, like buying groceries or paying bills.
While it’s convenient to connect with people and complete tasks online, cybercriminals are eager to use the internet to steal financial or personal data for their personal gain — otherwise known as identity theft. This is a criminal act and can affect your credit score in a negative way and cost money to fix. It can also affect employment opportunities since some employers conduct a credit check on top of drug testing and a criminal history check. Identity theft victims may even experience an impact to their mental health as they work to resolve their case.
The good news is that being able to recognize the signs of identity theft means you can act quickly to intervene and minimize any effects in case it happens to you. You can also protect yourself by using preventive measures and engaging in smart online behavior. This article provides essential information about identity theft, giving you the tools you need to become an empowered internet user and live your best life online.
5 steps to take if your identity has been stolen
The internet is a great place to be, but identity thieves hope to catch you off-guard and seek access to your personal information for their benefit. This could include private details like your birth date, bank account information, Social Security number, home address, and more. With data like this, an individual can adopt your identity (or even create a fake identity using pieces of your personal profile) and apply for loans, credit cards, debit cards, and more.
You don’t have to be kept in the dark, though. There are several signs that your identity has been stolen, from a change in your credit score to receiving unfamiliar bills and debt collectors calling about unfamiliar new accounts. If you suspect that you’ve been affected by identity fraud, you can act fast to minimize what happens. Here’s what to do.
File a police report
Start by contacting law enforcement to file a report. Your local police department can issue a formal report, which you may need to get your bank or other financial institution to reverse fraudulent charges. An official report assures the bank that you have been affected by identity fraud and it’s not a scam.
Before going to the police, gather all the relevant information about what happened. This could include the dates and times of fraudulent activity and any account numbers affected. Bringing copies of your bank statements can be useful. Also, make note of any suspicious activity that could be related. For example, was your debit card recently lost or your email hacked? The police will want to know.
Notify the company where the fraud occurred
You should also notify any businesses linked to your identity theft case. Depending on the type of identity theft, this could include banks, credit card companies, medical offices, health insurers, e-commerce stores, and more. For example, if someone used your credit card to make purchases on Amazon, alert the retailer.
Medical identity theft is another good example. In this case, a fraudster may assume your identity to gain access to health care services, such as medical checkups, prescription drugs, or pricey medical devices like wheelchairs. If someone uses your health insurance to get prescription drugs from a pharmacy, for instance, make sure to alert the pharmacy and your insurer.
File a report with the Federal Trade Commission
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is a government body that protects consumer interests. You can report identity theft via their portal, IdentityTheft.gov. They’ll then use the details you provide to create a free recovery plan you can use to address the effects of identity theft, like contacting the major credit bureaus or alerting the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) fraud department. You can report your case online or by calling 1-877-438-4338.
Ask credit reporting agencies to issue a fraud alert
A common consequence of identity theft is a dip in the victim’s credit score. For example, a cybercriminal may take out new lines of credit in the victim’s name, accrue credit card debt, and then not pay the balance. For this reason, contacting the credit monitoring bureaus is one of the most important steps to take in identity theft cases.
There are three main agencies: TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian. You can get a free credit report from each agency every 12 months via AnnualCreditReport.com. Check the report and note all fraudulent activity or false information and flag it with the relevant bureau’s fraud department. You should also initiate a fraud alert with each agency.
A fraud alert requires any creditors to verify your identity before opening a new line of credit. This adds an extra layer of security. An initial fraud alert lasts for 90 days. Once this expires, you can prolong your protection via an extended fraud alert, which will remain valid for seven years. You can notify one of the big three bureaus to set it up. They are then required to notify the other two bureaus.
A credit freeze is another smart move, which you can do through each of the three major credit bureaus. You can either call them or start the process online. This prevents people from accessing your credit report. Lenders, creditors, retailers, landlords, and others may want to see your credit as proof of financial stability. For example, if someone tries to open a phone contract under your name, the retailer may check the credit report. If there is a credit freeze in place, they won’t be able to view it and won’t issue the contract. If you need to allow someone access to your credit report, you can temporarily lift the freeze.
Change passwords to all of your accounts
Identity theft is often linked with leaked or hacked passwords. Even if you aren’t sure whether your passwords have been compromised, it’s best to play it safe. Change passwords to any affected accounts. Make sure to use strong passwords with a mix of numbers, letters, and symbols. Further, if there’s a chance to activate two-factor authentication on your accounts, this can provide added protection going forward.
Is it possible to prevent identity theft?
Ideally, you’ll never become the victim of identity theft, but things can happen. Cybercriminals work hard, but you can stay one step ahead by taking a few preventative measures. These include:
- Learn how to recognize common scams. ID theft comes in many forms, from email phishing scams to social media snooping, device hacking, and data breaches. Learn the signs of a scam. For example, phishing emails are often poorly written and frequently follow certain formats, like claiming that an account of yours has been suspended.
- Activate fraud alerts. Most financial institutions provide alerts about suspected fraudulent transactions, sending you a notification via phone call, text, or email if they notice suspicious activity on your account. The bank may also freeze an account automatically until any potentially unauthorized charges are clarified and confirmed by the account owner.
- Protect your devices with strong passwords. Your devices, including your phone, tablet, and laptop, should all be password-protected. In case one of your tech tools is stolen, it will be harder for fraudsters to gain access to your personal data. Set strong passwords with a mix of letters, numbers, and symbols. Make sure they don’t include information a person could figure out easily, like your home address or birthday.
- Use different passwords for different accounts. Any online accounts you use, from your banking app to your email, should be password-protected. Follow the same rules for setting strong passwords, but don’t duplicate passwords. If a hacker cracks the code for one account, they can easily guess their way into your other accounts. A password manager can help you stay on top of your passwords by encrypting them and storing them safely for easy tracking. McAfee Identity Protection includes a password manager that can secure your account credentials across devices.
- Protect your documents. Protect hard copies of sensitive documents, like your Social Security card and birth certificate, by keeping them locked away. Also, dispose of documents with personal data by shredding them. This ensures that dumpster divers can’t access your information. Documents to shred might include invoices, bank statements, medical records, canceled checks, and junk mail with your name, phone number, and address.
- Don’t overshare on social media. Social media is a great way to connect with friends and family, but it can also be a goldmine for identity thieves. Avoid sharing details like your kids’ or pets’ names, which are often used in passwords. Sensitive information, like a home address or birthday, can also be used to build a fake identity. You may want to set your social media accounts to private in addition to limiting what you share.
- Review your credit report. You have the right to one free copy of your credit report every 12 months, which you can request via AnnualCreditReport.com. This provides you with a report from each of the three major credit bureaus. Review the report, verifying personal information, account details, and public records (like bankruptcies or liens) to ensure there isn’t anything suspicious.
- Follow the news. When major corporations are targeted by hackers, they’re required to alert affected consumers. These breaches are also often reported in the media. To take a more proactive approach, though, check out the McAfee blog, which reports on breaches. If a business you use has been affected, change your passwords.
You can further protect yourself with antivirus software like McAfee’s Total Protection plan. This can help protect your devices against spyware and viruses. You can also enhance your network security with a firewall and virtual private network (VPN). A firewall controls traffic on your internet network based on predefined security parameters, while a VPN hides your IP address and other personal data.
Sign up for a protection plan today
Don’t let concerns about identity fraud keep you from enjoying all the conveniences and perks the internet offers. McAfee’s identity theft protection services can help you stay connected while keeping you safe. Tailor your package to your household’s needs to get the safeguards you want, like ID theft coverage, VPN, and 24/7 monitoring. Our Total Protection plan also comes with $1 million in identity theft coverage to cover qualifying losses and hands-on support to help you reclaim your identity.
With McAfee by your side, you can stay online confidently.