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How to Protect Yourself From Identity Theft

May 29, 2024
Man smiling holding a credit card and looking at his phone

Learning the signs and dangers of identity theft is one of the best ways to avoid becoming one of its many yearly victims. Protecting against identity theft is vital not only for maintaining financial health, but for your peace of mind as well. The methods for stealing your personal information are constantly evolving and becoming more difficult to detect, making it critical to keep up with the latest trends and prevention recommendations.

What Is Identity Theft?

Identity theft happens when someone other than you uses your personal information to impersonate, and often steal from you. This personal information can include your Social Security number, bank account or credit card information, even physical identification like your mail, driver’s license or passport. With so many different kinds of identity theft to worry about, we’ve broken down some of the most common to act as your quick reference guide. 

Synthetic Identity Theft

Synthetic identity theft is a method where various bits of personal information pulled from different sources are used to create a false identity. This is usually done by taking a Social Security number not currently known by creditors, such as a child’s Social Security number, and attributing it to a fake name and address in order to open credit cards or lines of credit. This can often go unnoticed for a long amount of time, giving criminals the opportunity to increase stolen credit limits over time before maxing them out and vanishing.

Taxpayer Identity Theft

If someone else learns your Social Security number, they can file a tax return and steal your tax refund. This type of theft can be reduced by filing early in some cases, but if it does happen, it can be a warning sign of larger identity theft issues and should be the trigger for an in-depth look at any area that may have also been compromised by someone else knowing your Social Security number.

Credit & Debit Identity Theft

One of the most straightforward ways identity theft can happen is by a person using your credit or debit card information to spend big and wipe out your checking account or max out your credit card. Many of us have had the experience of anxiously canceling credit and debit cards when a wallet has been lost or stolen, but don’t forget that a thief doesn’t need a physical card to commit fraud with your credit or debit card — a lot of damage can be done with your card number, expiration date and security code.

Account Takeover Identity Theft

Whether your information is leaked in a large breach or a criminal manages to get access to only your individual account, the results can be devastating. Victims of account identity theft can be subjected to having all of their funds withdrawn or transferred out of their accounts. They can also be exposed to further attacks if the thieves gain access to other accounts by using the information they now have access to.

Mail Identity Theft

It might be an old-school way to commit identity theft, but criminals can still get plenty of your information by taking your mail. They can steal money directly if they steal and cash checks intended for you, or they can lift information from bank or credit card statements to gain access to your accounts. Pre-approved credit card offers can also be a source of identity theft, so even if you aren’t interested in the offer, be sure to dispose of this kind of sensitive information correctly.

Social Security Number Identity Theft

Social Security number theft is an aspect of many different methods of identity theft, but it’s worth remembering that someone with your Social Security number can be used for financial gain without touching your bank or credit accounts. Someone can sell your information to another entity or use your Social Security number to collect government benefits.

Common Forms of Scams & Breaches

Criminals who are after your information will make use of many tactics to try and get you to hand over your personal information without realizing you’re falling prey to identity theft. Some of the most common include:

  • Phishing scams. Thieves will send an email that seems to be from an official source asking for personal information — like your Social Security number, bank account information, credit card numbers or log-in information for other valuable accounts.
  • Spoofing. Similar to phishing scams, spoofing is done via a phone call. Thieves will “spoof” the number of your bank, credit card company or other official institution to make it look like you are getting a legitimate call and then ask for your personal information.
  • Data breaches. These occur when a hacker or hackers gain access to databases that contain sensitive information. Unfortunately, breaches are fairly common so it is more than likely that your information has already been leaked in a data breach. While not a DEFCON-level concern, assuming your information has been compromised by a data breach and taking appropriate action is advised.
  • Social engineering. A broad term for methods that use the victim’s humanity against them to gain access to personal information. Phishing and spoofing are common examples of social engineering tactics.

How To Protect Your Personal Information

While there is no perfect solution to preventing identity theft, there are some ways to reduce the risk and protect your banking, credit and other personal information and that of your loved ones.

Secure Your Social Security Number

Make it a habit to not give out your Social Security number over the phone or in email. If you are being asked to give your SSN by a person, it never hurts to ask why it is needed and what protective measures are in place to secure your personal information.

Limit Sharing of Personal Information

Obviously, telling your personal information to anyone who asks is a bad move, but be conscious of what you are sharing, perhaps without realizing it. This includes big life events (like the birth of a child), trips and birthdays. Using social media can be a great way to keep your loved ones up to date with what is going on in your life, just make sure your privacy settings are limiting the things you share to those you know and trust.

Correct Storage & Disposal

Keep all documents that contain important personal information in a secure location, preferably under lock and key. When you are throwing away documents that show your information, be sure to shred them. 

Take Precautions With Technology

While technology can be one of the most convenient and powerful tools we use on a day-to-day basis, it is also a significant point of attack for those seeking to steal your identity. Luckily, there are some relatively simple steps you can take to keep your personal information secure when using technology:

  • Update your software regularly
  • Use firewalls
  • Utilize two-factor authentication whenever possible
  • Avoid public Wi-Fi
  • Set up a virtual private network (VPN)

Protecting Your Financial Information

For specifically financial information, many of the same protective measures you take for your personal information can be used. However, it’s worth digging into a few extra details that are specific to financial matters.

Monitor Statements

Review your bank and credit card statements every time you get one. If you see any strange activity or are concerned that your identity has been stolen, contact your bank or credit card company immediately.

Secure Accounts

Ensure all of your accounts are protected by unique passwords and all available security measures — like two-factor authentication — are active. If you are able, adding your credit and debit card information to a digital wallet is a safer, more secure way to shop.

Create Strong Passwords

When choosing unique passwords for your various accounts, make sure to use passwords that are long and complex enough that they can’t be easily guessed or figured out. Using a password manager is a secure way to generate strong passwords for all of your accounts.

For more information on ways you can prevent identity fraud and theft, check out DCU’s privacy and fraud resource center.

Recognizing Phishing and Scam Attempts

While there may not be a guaranteed way to avoid every technique identity thieves use, you do put yourself ahead of the curve by learning how the basics of phishing, spoofing and other often-used scams work. A few general tips to keep in mind are:

  • Avoid opening anything from unknown senders. Whether it’s a link in a text message or an email, it’s dangerous to open links or download anything from a sender you don’t recognize.
  • Check the address. If you get a suspicious email, double check the sender’s email address. Look for incorrect spellings, odd variations and unfamiliar domains — all of which are signs of a probable scam.
  • Verify links. If you get a link that seems odd, but you aren’t sure is actually malicious, hover your cursor over the link. After a few seconds, the destination link will be shown — if the destination link doesn’t match the link text, the odds are high that the link is dangerous.
  • Block unknown calls. A majority of cell phones allow you to automatically block or silence unsolicited calls from unknown numbers. Some phones will even let you know that the incoming call is likely spam.
  • Investigate suspicious phone numbers. Sometimes, identity thieves will be able to spoof the number of your bank or credit card company so the call comes through and is identified as that institution. If you answer or they leave a voicemail and the other person is asking for personal information, hang up and find the phone number listed on the website or an official piece of communication from the company. Call back with the verified number and ask about the call you received — if it was from the company, they should know what the call was about and if it wasn’t, you’ve avoided giving your personal information away to a scammer.
  • Be wary of social media messages. Scammers and bots used by them may attempt to extract personal information from you via social media messages. They may also be trying to find important information you may have inadvertently or unintentionally posted about, so make sure your privacy settings are set up to limit this kind of activity.

Just In Case: How To Respond To Identity Theft

Unfortunately, there is no perfect solution that will stop 100% of identity theft. However, if you do fall victim to identity theft, here are some basic steps to follow:

  • Report the theft immediately to the proper authorities
  • Change passwords
  • Contact your bank and credit card companies to cancel your cards and put fraud alert protections in place
  • File notice with Federal Trade Commission and report theft
  • Freeze your credit — this will prevent new lines of credit from being opened and can be undone at any time at your request
  • Work with proper authorities to restore your ID, bank accounts and credit standing

Having your identity stolen is a stressful and difficult reality to deal with, but by keeping your best practices in place and quickly buttoning up your bank accounts and credit lines, it can be easier to shed some of the anxiety about the situation.

Keep Your Identity to Yourself

Keeping your identity safe can feel like a daunting task in the face of so many potential threats, but by keeping up with the latest in identity theft strategies and learning ways to protect your information, you can help reduce your risk of becoming a victim of identity theft.

For members concerned their identity has been stolen, DCU has an Identity Theft Hotline that will guide you through the whole process, even if the compromised information is not related to a DCU account. For non-members and those looking to learn more about recognizing and avoiding identity theft before it occurs, check out our fraud and security resource center.

This article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to serve as legal, financial, investment or tax advice or indicate that a specific DCU product or service is right for you. For specific advice about your unique circumstances, you may wish to consult a financial professional.