What is Identity Theft?
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Identity theft is the illegal use of someone else's personal information, usually for financial gain. For many people, the term “identity theft” calls to mind a credit card being stolen and used to make illicit purchases. The phrase also refers to a broader range of illegal activity, such as using someone else's Social Security number to open a fraudulent bank account or obtaining insurance information to receive medical services and leaving you with the bill.
About one in 20 adults, or 12.6 million people, in the United States were victims of identity theft in 2012, according to a recent survey. Identity thieves stole $21 billion at a rate of one identity-theft incident every three seconds.
Types of identity theft
Dumpster Diving: Thieves search your trash for documents that contain your personally identifiable information.
Stolen Wallet: A thief steals your wallet to gain instant access to your information.
Change of Address: A classic identity theft technique. Thieves change the address where you receive mail and divert your personal information into the wrong hands.
Mail Theft: Thieves scout for unlocked mailboxes and steal your mail.
Shoulder Surfing: Thieves stand within sight or earshot of your business transaction and record your information to commit future fraud.
ATM Skimmers/Handheld Skimmers: Thieves literally swipe your personal information when you make a legitimate transaction such as paying your bill at a restaurant or gas station, or when you're using an ATM.
Overlays: Hidden devices can be installed on an ATM, enabling thieves to swipe your account information when you insert your card.
P2P File Sharing: Music sharing sites and other peer-to-peer networks have helped high-tech thieves get all kinds of personal information via accidental disclosure — tax returns, password files, birth dates, and account numbers.
Phishing: An email from your bank could be real or a phishing attempt. Thieves impersonate legitimate businesses via email and websites in order to acquire PINs, credit card or bank account numbers, or Social Security info.
SMSishing: A sneaky new trend to get your personal info is sending text messages to your mobile device that impersonate a reputable contact and then direct you to a dangerous website with the goal of stealing your identity.
Vishing: Vishing — voice calls made to your phone — are an effective way for thieves to get your personal information.
Online Shopping: Thieves are experts at duplicating legitimate online storefronts. Before you know it, you’ve completed your transaction and inadvertently handed over the personal information they need to commit fraud.
Identity theft protection
Many identity theft protection services exist to help consumers combat most any form of identity theft. The U.S. government has created numerous measures to protect citizen’s financial and personal identity. For example, the Red Flags Rule requires financial institutions to actively monitor account activity to identify potentially fraudulent purchases associated with identity theft and then notify the consumer of the charges. Identity theft insurance and other services can monitor all aspects of your personal information to look for instances of its use throughout the country.
- Shred documents; don't just throw them out.
- Don't use public or unsecured computers when accessing sensitive information.
- Use more than one password.
- Don't take important documents on vacations.
- Avoid leaving your wallet in the car.