To think someone else can assume your identity and access your most private information and resources is scary. Thankfully, there are many ways to prevent this from happening to you.

While carelessness is the usual culprit, identity theft does not hinge on carelessness alone or solely on giving out your personal information online. It can also happen at a grocery store, when you walk down the street, or because of a successful hacking attempt.

What is Identity Theft?

Identity theft is the fraudulent practice of illegally obtaining someone else’s personal information and financial data without the person’s consent. It’s a crime usually executed by an individual or criminal organization. The endgame of identity theft is to commit monetary fraud or in rare cases assume someone else’s actual identity.

The personal information obtained from this act is used for credit cards and loan applications, stealing money from the person’s bank account, fraudulent tax returns or health insurance claims. These actions can put a significant dent in your credit status and overall integrity.

In other cases, identity thieves may end up selling your information to the highest bidder on the black market. Here, there’s no limit to the number of ways this information can be used or the damage it can cause.

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The Signs of Identity Theft

Here are some of the common ways to recognize identity theft.

~Your Financial Accounts Show Charges You Didn’t Make

~When your bank statements show strange charges that you do not remember making. This means your online banking information or debit card has been breached and the perpetrator is making charges, possibly in person or online using your hard-earned money.

~You Get an Alert from your Creditor or Bank

~When your financial or credit institution identifies fraudulent activity on your account, you will often get a call or text from the company that issued your credit card to inform you or irregular charging patterns.

~These alerts often occur when an unusual amount or frequency of transactions occur. It may also be a suspicious transaction detected from your card or because the card is being used outside your normal region. The appropriate approach is to handle it immediately; most cards these days give you the power to turn your card off to prevent any recurrence until you can call your financial institution to rectify the issue.

~You’re Getting Billed for Items you Didn’t Buy

~Your identity may be in the hands of a thief if you notice an invoice(s) of purchased items that you had no part in or a bill for overdue payment for credit accounts that you did not open. Many times, your personal address is also scrapped during a fraud attempt and these paper statements can get sent to your home upon defaulting.

~You No Longer are Getting Your Household Bills

~As the above states, the opposite can also happen. If you still get paper statements, you may notice that your household bills are no longer coming in the mail. This is indicative that your personal information has been compromised. It often happens when the identity thief changes your billing address in an attempt to prevent you from seeing your statements and therefore the charges they have been creating.

~You Get Turned Down for a Loan or Credit Card

~In a case where you have a decent credit history but still get turned down for an affordable loan or credit card, you may be a victim of an identity thief. Also, if you are approved for the loan or credit, the interest rates may be lot higher than the average or than you are used to, this is another sign that you may be a victim.

~Tax Return Rejection

~If you receive a rejection notice from the IRS after filing for your tax refund, this is one of the biggest red flags yet. These rejection notices are often because of duplicate returns, indicating that a return may have been fraudulently filed in your name already.

~A Small ‘Test’ Charge Appears on your Statement

~Many identity thieves like to “test” a stolen card to know if it is still active. This test charge is a common practice, and this transaction is usually around the range of $5. There are even some test charges that may appear as $0.00, so keep an eye out for anything unnatural in your statements.

~Once the $0-$5 test transaction goes through, the fraudster knows the card is active, and now they will start going for the big-ticket items without any constraint.

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Protecting Yourself from Identity Theft

While identity theft can be 100% prevented, unless you use cash only and never provide your personal information anywhere, which seems unrealistic in the modern age. Luckily, there are many ways that you can lessen the chance that you will be targeted or taken advantage of.

~Use Password/Facial Recognition/Fingerprint to Protect Your Devices and Accounts

~In the modern day with technology constantly improving and taking over more and more, using a password, facial recognition, or fingerprint is as important as ever. Many phones these days offer facial recognition or fingerprint access which is stronger than a passcode that can be hacked. While it does happen in some gruesome high-stakes thefts, it is much harder for a hacker to get the use of your face or a finger to access a phone or account.

~For accounts that don’t allow for biometric options using strong passwords that are 8+ characters long that include a capital letter, number, character, and are not personal to your life are the second-best option. It is hard to believe that passwords like ‘password’, ‘123456’, and ‘abc123’ are still highly used these days. Make sure yours is strong and unique, giving your accounts a better chance at staying secure.

~Use 2-Factor Authentication

~For extra security it is best to always using 2-factor authentication for an added layer of security. In most instances, having 2-factor authentication will prevent an outsider from logging into your accounts even if they have your password. Whoever hopes to access your accounts must provide two credentials to prove they are you which means they would need a lot of access to your private data, which the average thief does not do, they want the easy fish.

~2-factor authentication can be autogenerated from the site or app you are using or to make it even more difficult, external authentication apps exist. If generated from the site you are trying to log into, they normally sent you a text or email with the 6-digit code. The hacker would need to have your password and access to your phone or email to finish their fraudulent attempt.

~For added security you can hook up an external code generator app that is housed on your phone. To enter the 2-factor authentication code the thief would need to know your account password, know the password to get into your phone, the password to get into the authenticator app, and which code to select from your list to enter onto the desired account they are trying to hack. Now, that is secure!

~Switch Up Your Passwords

~The idea of switching up your passwords for your different accounts, electronic devices, and major financial accounts regularly may sound tedious, but it is essential. Especially if you use simple passwords or access accounts using non-secured Wi-Fi accounts. Additionally, using a single password for all your accounts opens you up to all kinds of theft as the fraudster only has to figure out one password to gain access to your whole life.

~Yes, we know it is almost impossible to memorize all your different passwords without forgetting them. As a result, we advise that you use a password manager such as LastPass to securely hold all your passwords. Many password vaults have been around for years. Do your proper research and select what you think fits your needs.

~Lastly, do not use your name, birthdays, or anniversary as your password because it is the first thing that will come into the mind of a hacker. Due to the large amount of over-sharing on the internet, often these answers are easy to find just by doing a simple social media review on their target. Unrelated words, letters, numbers, and special characters are always the best for passwords.

~Watch out for Phishing Attempts

~A phishing attempt is a cyber-attack strategy employed by fraudsters to access your personal information. This process involves suspicious-looking links in emails with a call-to-action. Clicking on these links may install harmful malware that can harm your device and scrape personal data.

~On other occasions, these emails or text messages could pose as your financial institution, bank, credit card company or mortgage lender. Their goal is to trick you into giving them your account data, thus providing them with everything they need to get into your account.

~Phishing schemes are ever evolving, and the best advice is to avoid clicking on any link you perceive to be illegitimate. Also, never give out your financial account information to an unconfirmed official. Lastly, do not download any attachments from an unknown source.

~Never Give out Personal Info on the Phone or Internet

~Identity thieves, hackers, and fraudsters will often pose as an employee from your bank or credit card company over the phone. These fraudsters often present an issue with your account and ask for your personal information to resolve it. Indulging and giving out your vital information grants them access to your finances.

~No legitimate bank or company will call you or ask you over the internet for security information like your pin #, password, or social security number.

~Regularly Check your Credit reports and Bank account

~A principal way to ensure you catch any discrepancies in your finances is by regularly checking your bank accounts and credit reports. Early detection of unusual activities on your account can help to mitigate the damage.

~Often, people who scam cards will do a test charge to make sure the card is active and funded. If you catch this pending charge, you can dispute it, cancel your card, and get a new one so the fraudster cannot steal your money.

~Not many people review their credit reports often enough. The easiest way to ensure you catch anyone trying to start a new account in your name would be to have alerts set up when you credit is ran or when a new account is set up. Otherwise, the next best thing is to routinely check your reports for any new activity that you did not personally do.

~Protect All Important Personal Documents

~Important physical documents possess a great deal of information about you that can be very useful to identity thieves and hackers. Information like your social security number, birthdate, passport, and bank account information will grant these fraudsters undue access into your life.

~Putting any identifying information into a safe or safety deposit box is imperative. Do not leave pictures of these items on your phone, carry them in your wallet, or provide them to anyone over the phone or internet.

~Check Your Mail Daily

~Leaving your mail in your mailbox is an easy way to have your identity stolen. A full mailbox is a common target for many identity thieves. A full mailbox can offer opportunities for them to use your junk mail to start accounts you would likely not notice.

~When you travel out of town, you can pause your mail with the local mail service or ask a trusted neighbor to help you pick up your mail often to avoid it being unattended for too long.

~Additionally, it is best to reduce the number of sensitive documents you get through the mail. Getting your banking and credit statements via email is a great idea. If you know a sensitive document should be arriving soon, check your mail daily.

~Shredding your physical and personal records will help prevent them from reaching the wrong hands. Identity thieves are known for digging through trash in search of any vital information they can lay their hands.

~Leaving trails of ATM, retail, and credit card receipts are items fraudsters can piece together to obtain personal data on you. Therefore, shredding these receipts is a potent way to secure your sensitive information. These days, it is recommended to use a particle shredder as it cuts each document into little, teeny tiny squares. As added security, when emptying your shredder, don’t put the whole bin in the same trash bag. Separating the shredding will ensure anyone trying to steal your information would not be able to piece it back together.

~Limit Exposure

~Limiting the amount of items, you carry with you on a daily can help drop the likelihood of identity theft. Lowering the number of credits cards, you carry around daily will help reduce the damage in the case of your wallet or handbag being stolen. For instance, if you have department store specific cards like Sam’s Club, Costco, Target, Marshalls, Macy’s, etc., leave those home until you know you will be going to those stores.

~Additionally, do not keep personal identfying information in your wallet like your social security card, bank account numbers, pins, or passwords.

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What to do if You Fall Victim

Even if you follow all the steps to a ‘T’, you may still fall victim to a very persistent hacker. Luckily, there are steps you can take to take back your identity. If you are luckily, and catch any potential sign of identity theft, your recovery could be as quick as calling your bank. However for some unlucky individuals, it can take months or years to crawl out from under what an identity thief has done to them, making protecting your identity that much more important!

~Immediately Review Your Credit Report

~Once you notice something is off, take the time to review your credit report as quick as possible. If you find anything strange or inconsistent with your own use history, report it to your credit company immediately.

~File an Identity Report

~You can file an identity report if you believe you have become a victim. You can do this by filing a police report and reporting to the Federal Trade Commission. Furthermore, you should reach out to your creditors and inform them of your ordeal.

~Set up a Fraud Alert or Security Freeze

~Placing a fraud alert or security freeze will help prevent future scams and fraud. This fraud alert will help inform your future creditors that you may have been a victim of identity theft and require that they contact you to verify your identity.

~A Security freeze prevents anyone from gaining access to your credit report and prevents them from opening a credit account with your name.

~Begin Disputing Incorrect Information and Charges

~In a case where the incorrect information you find on your bank statement or credit report is minimal, it is advised that you still dispute it. Report this dispute with your bank or credit bureau, and it should only take about 30 days to get resolved. When resolved and your claim is confirmed, the bank or bureau will reimburse your money or erase the fraudulent charges.