Identity theft happens when someone fraudulently obtains and uses your personal information (such as your name, credit card/bank account number and statement address), to steal money from your existing accounts or open new accounts in your name without your knowledge. Someone usurping your identity to steal your money isn’t the only case of identity theft (a person might also commit a crime in your name), but it’s one of the most frequent ones.
With computerized bank statements and online shopping, it has become easy for identity thieves to acquire and abuse personal information. The impact on unsuspecting identity theft victims can be considerable. Not only can money be irretrievably stolen, but credit records can be damaged, and with them career prospects (many employers check your credit history before hiring you) and possibilities of financing major projects such as education or buying a house.
Identity thieves can steal your account information in different ways:
- Paper receipts they find in your trash
- Stealing your wallet, purse, checkbook or account statements
- “Social engineering” (false pretenses) to obtain your information from financial institutions
- “Skimming” to steal your credit or debit card number when you make a transaction
- “Phishing” or masquerading as a legitimate institution to get you to reveal personal information.
Protecting yourself against identity theft is often a matter of common sense, such as: not leaving your personal information where anyone can see it (shred your papers before you throw them away); and making regular checks, at least once a month, that there has been no unexplained activity on your accounts or changes in your credit record. In particular:
- Don’t give out personal information to someone who contacts you. If you need to give out personal information, make sure that you are the one who calls the bank, the credit card company, etc. to be sure you are actually dealing with the organization concerned and not a thief pretending to be that organization.
- Have your account(s) set up so that you receive alerts for any transactions over a certain amount, purchases made over the Internet or similar transactions. The goal is to be alerted for any transactions that you would normally only do infrequently or not at all.
- Avoid clicking on links in emails that you receive asking you to give information or to verify your account. Instead, go directly to the site or portal of the bank or credit card company concerned (enter the real address of the site directly into your web browser) to make any checks on the well-being of your account.
If in spite of these precautions you think you may have become a victim of identity theft, several possibilities are open to you: you can notify creditors, dispute unauthorized transactions and/or file a police report. These actions are important for resolving theft from your accounts, preventing fraudulent information or debts from appearing on your credit record and stopping debt collection companies from pursuing you for money you never spent.