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Identity Theft and How To Protect Yourself

Identity Theft and How To Protect Yourself9/11/2017

With data breaches becoming more frequent, it is important to understand how to protect yourself.

More than 2.8 million fraud reports were filed in 2021.  Almost half of all Americans have experienced financial identity theft. Identity theft will continue to be a major concern, so it’s important to understand what identity theft is and how to protect yourself. 

Protect yourself from identity theft - Image of a thief holding a social security card, drivers license and bank cards

What is Identity Theft? 

Identity theft occurs when someone uses your personal information, without your permission, and pretends to be you to commit fraud. Personal information can include your social security number, bank account number, or credit/debit card number. Criminals obtain this information by hacking into your computer or accounts, posing as a person or organization that you trust, or by purchasing your information on the dark web. 

It can be hard to notice that you were a victim of identity theft. You may not know until you review your credit reports or financial statements and see charges you didn’t make, or are contacted by a debt collector about a debt you don't recognize.

It is important to be proactive and protect yourself from identity theft. Here are some of the best ways to prevent identity theft.

Create Strong Passwords

Your first line of defense against cybercriminals is creating a strong password. A strong password is one that is not easily guessed and not commonly used. Here are some tips for creating a strong password:

  • Make it long: 8-12 characters 
  • Include a mix of letters, numbers, and special characters 
  • Avoid using personal information such as a nickname, family pet, birthdate or address 
  • Try using a lyric or meaningful saying that you will remember - using the first letter of each word
  • Try not to reuse passwords 

If you need to write your passwords down to remember them, keep them in a safe place, such as a locked drawer. You may also want to consider a secure password management tool such as LastPass. 
For extra security on your smartphone, you may want to consider setting up facial recognition.

Setup Two-Factor Authentication (2FA)

Make your login process more secure with two-factor authentication (2FA), also known as multifactor authentication.  2FA requires a passcode in addition to your password, to log into an account. When you type in your login password, the passcode is sent via text message or email. If you don’t have access to the phone or email account, it is virtually impossible to complete the login process. 

Identity theft occurs when someone uses your personal information, without your permission, and pretends to be you to commit fraud - Image of a person holding a social security card

Watch out for Phishing Emails

One of the most popular hacking strategies is phishing. Phishing emails are phony emails designed to look like they are from a legitimate organization or person. Phishing is pronounced “fishing” because hackers use emails to “bait” victims into clicking on a link and providing their personal information. Phishing emails take you to a fake login page and ask you to enter your credentials for that particular site. A common phishing example is an email from Amazon stating there is a problem with your account or order prompting you to log in to your account via the link in the email. The email and website have the company logo, so to the untrained eye, it appears to be authentic. 

There are ways to spot a phishing scam. First, check the sender’s email address to see if it really is an official email from the company. If it contains spelling mistakes or random letters and numbers, it might be an imposter. Next, look for spelling and grammar mistakes throughout the email, then hover over links to check for spelling errors or random letters and numbers. 
If you receive an email from a company that you do business with stating there is a problem with your account and you are unsure if the email is legitimate, reach out to the company directly via a trusted means of communication rather than clicking the link in the email. 

Use Secure WiFi

When you have a busy, on-the-go lifestyle, free WiFi can be your best friend. Although it’s convenient, it may not be secure. Avoid public WiFi and stick to a secured network when you’re accessing accounts with sensitive data, such as your mobile banking app. When you connect to WiFi, data is sent from point A to point B. If the network is unsecure, it is possible that hackers can intercept that data as it moves between points. 

Keep Software up to date 

It’s important that you keep the software up to date on both your smartphones and your computer or laptop. Continue using antivirus software on appropriate devices. Failing to protect your device with antivirus software leaves your computer more vulnerable to malware and other viruses. 

Use strong passwords and enable two-factor authentication to make it difficult for hackers to get into your account - Person logging into an account on their laptop while a verification screen is open on their cellphone

Look out for Debit/Credit card skimmers

Not all identity theft occurs online. Criminals target debit and credit card users with “skimmers” at ATMs and gas pumps. The skimming device, often undetected, captures your card data while you are making your transaction. 

Skimmers can be hard to spot, but some telltale signs include:

  • A broken security seal
  • The card reader feels loose or can easily be moved with your hand.
  • The card reader sticks out too far
  • The pin pad feels thicker than usual 

If something doesn't feel right, alert the gas station or a bank or credit union employee immediately. When using ATM’s we recommend that you stick with an official bank or credit union ATM. 
If possible, use mobile wallet for transactions at the gas station. This payment method keeps your credit/debit card account number from being exposed.

Shred Documents 

Shred your physical financial statements, medical bills, or any other trash with sensitive data. This prevents the information from falling into the wrong hands, such as dumpster divers, who rummage through trash with the intent to find data to steal. Opt-in to paperless billing or estatements whenever you can. 

Monitor Your Financial Statements

Monitor your bank and financial statements regularly and confirm that all charges or withdrawals are correct. With online and mobile banking you can monitor your account anytime, anywhere. If you see suspicious activity, contact your financial institution immediately. 

Set Up Fraud Alerts/Account Alerts 

Don’t wait until you go through your financial statements to find suspicious activity. Sign up for fraud alerts from your credit card company, bank or credit union. You can also set up transaction alerts to get notified when a transaction is made or your account goes below a certain threshold. 


Watch out for "Skimmers" on ATMs and gas pumps - Man using an ATM.

Security Freeze

You can prevent fraudsters from opening up a credit card in your name by freezing your credit. A credit freeze restricts access to your credit report, which prevents anyone from opening a new account. If you need to apply for a new credit card or a loan, you can temporarily lift the freeze. A credit freeze lasts until you remove it. There is no cost to freeze your credit, but you will need to contact the credit reporting bureaus. Learn more about credit freezes.   

Identity Monitoring Services 

If identity theft is a major concern, there are a number of professional identity monitoring services available. This has become so popular, that many employers are now offering it with their benefits packages. Some of the most popular identity monitoring services are LifeLock, Identity Guard, and Identity Force. 

What To Do If You Become a Victim of Identity Theft 

Taking the above steps can help protect you from identity theft. Unfortunately, sometimes despite your best efforts, identity theft can still happen. If you believe your identity may have been stolen, contact the necessary parties immediately.  This includes the FBI’s Internet Crime Complain Center, the Federal Trade Commission, the credit reporting agencies, your local bank or credit union, and the company where the fraud occurred. You may even want to file a police report at your local police station. For a complete list of the next steps and how to develop a recovery plan, visit 


Related Content:

How to Recognize and Protect Yourself From Scams

Be Smart When Paying With Your Smart Phone

How to Safely Manage Your Financial Accounts Online

How To Avoid Payment App Scams 

Look Out for Common Cybersecurity Threats


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