Identity thieves swindled Americans out of $16.8 billion in 2017, and according to Javelin Strategy & Research, that number climbs higher every year. Despite the various precautions financial institutions have taken, including the widespread use of microchipped cards, they haven't been able to overcome the biggest risk factor for identity theft: human error.
Victims of identity theft often don't realize it, but they put themselves at risk by making their personal information easily accessible and not monitoring their accounts closely enough. Even if they aren't held responsible for fraudulent charges, they're in for a long battle to restore their credit histories -- and that can lead to protracted legal proceedings and a lot of headaches.
You could be making yourself an easy target for identity theft if you're doing any of these four things.
1. You don't monitor the activity on your bank or credit card accounts
If you're not checking your financial statements regularly, you could be missing fraudulent charges or withdrawals made by an identity thief. Generally, you aren't held responsible for fraudulent transactions unless your card was lost or stolen and you failed to report it to your bank. But that doesn't mean you can't be financially hurt by them.
If an identity thief racks up a bunch of credit card debt in your name, it can lower your credit score and make it more difficult for you to get existing lines of credit in the future. And if they clean out your bank account, it can impact your ability to pay your bills, which will also hurt your credit score.
You should always read through your monthly bank and credit card statements and make sure there aren't any unexpected charges. If you notice anything suspicious, contact your bank or card issuer immediately and put a fraud alert on the account. If your credit card has been stolen, the issuer will send you a new one with a new account number.
2. You don't check your credit reports
New-account fraud is one of the fastest growing types of identity theft, according to the Javelin Strategy study. You may not realize that a new account has been opened in your name because it could be at an entirely different bank. That makes this type of fraud much harder to detect: You might not catch it until you start receiving unexpected bills in the mail, or an account goes to collections.
Your credit reports (you have three -- one for each credit bureau) are records of all the lines of credit that are in your name. Checking them periodically is the best way to catch fraudulent accounts opened by an identity thief.
The federal government requires the credit bureaus to provide one free credit report to you per year. You can access them at AnnualCreditReport.com. You can view all three at once, or space them out throughout the year. I'd recommend checking your credit report at least once per year to ensure that all the information it contains is accurate.
3. You share a lot of personal information online
Posting your birthday on your social media profile or sharing the address of your new home may seem innocuous enough, but identity thieves can use these bits of personal information to fool financial institutions into believing that they're you. If you spend a lot of time on public computers or Wi-Fi networks, thieves may be able to access even more of your personal information, including bank account and credit card numbers.
This problem is especially common among teens and young adults, because they're some of the biggest social-media users and may not be aware of how easily their personal information can be stolen.
Limit the amount of personal information you share online. Before posting anything, ask yourself if that information could help an identity thief get access to your finances. Always make sure you log out of all of your accounts when you're using a public computer, and try to avoid shopping online or accessing financial information when you're on a public Wi-Fi network.
4. You keep a lot of accounts open
Statistically, those who make more money are more likely to become the victims of identity theft. Those with an annual income of $100,000 or more are almost twice as likely to have their identity stolen as someone who makes under $50,000, according to a study by AARP. But they're not being targeted just because they have a lot of money.They also tend to have several bank accounts and they're 26% more likely than low-income earners to have three or more credit cards, which simply gives identity thieves more opportunities to come after them.
In addition to closely monitoring all of your accounts, you should close any credit card accounts or bank accounts that you use infrequently, to reduce the number of avenues that a thief can use to steal your identity. This will also make it easier for you to monitor your accounts for fraudulent activity.
What to do if your identity is stolen
If your identity is stolen, there are a few steps you should take right away in order to minimize the damage done and begin the process of getting your good name back.
First, if you notice fraudulent charges on your account or you get any bills from a new account that you didn't open, contact the financial institution immediately and freeze or cancel the account. If the damage is widespread, you may want to think about canceling your other bank and credit card accounts, even if they haven't been compromised, and opening new ones. This can keep thieves from accessing your other funds as well.
Read through all your account statements to see if there are more fraudulent charges you may have missed. Then, pull your credit reports and check them for any new accounts that may have been opened in your name. You may also want to place a fraud alert on your credit report. This will notify financial institutions that they must take additional steps to verify your identity before opening a new account in your name.
Contact the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and file a report. A representative should be able to give you advice on next steps to take, depending on what information the identity thief had access to. It's also a good idea to file a police report. This is useful when you're working with credit reporting agencies to restore your identity because it shows that you've taken active steps to correct the issue.
If your Social Security number has been compromised, it's important to contact the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Social Security Administration (SSA); otherwise, the thief could come after your tax return or Social Security benefits. You may be assigned a new Social Security number, but getting one isn't easy, and even if you do, that doesn't mean you're out of the woods. Your old number will still remain valid and attached to you, and your new number will have no credit history, so it will take a few years to build it back up.
Sometimes identity thieves will file a change of address with the Postal Service so that any bills or documents for their fraudulent accounts don't make it to you. They may also try to steal information about your accounts this way. If you find yourself missing mail that you feel you should be receiving, contact the Postal Inspection Service to see if a thief filed a fraudulent change-of-address form in your name.
These steps will get you started on the road to recovery, but it could be months or even years before your identity is completely yours again. If you haven't become a victim yet, be mindful of how much personal information you give away and monitor your financial accounts closely. With luck, you'll be able to catch any fraudulent activity before it destroys your credit history.