Identity theft: How to protect yourself from credit fraud | finder.com

Identity theft guide

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With a cautious approach and a sharp eye for tell-tale warning signs, you can protect your credit against identity theft.

Credit identity theft can come in the form of someone stealing your credit card details, hacking into your bank account or even applying for loans in your name. Knowing that, you should be aware of the necessary precautions to take so that your credit report isn’t negatively affected due to identity theft.

In the guide below you can find all the identity theft information you need to know including the ways your identity could be stolen, how it could impact your credit and how to protect yourself.

What is identity theft?

Credit identity theft is when someone steals your personal and financial information to use for their own gain. The information stolen can be regarding your identity, like your name or date of birth, or it could be in relation to your financial accounts.

There’s no shortage of ways that unsavory individuals can gain access to your information, which is why it’s important to be careful with any details relating to your personal identity or finances. Criminals can get their hands on your information or trick you into giving it up and then sink you into debt by spending money or applying for credit in your name.

How can my identity be stolen?

When information about yourself falls into the wrong hands, such as your name and address, what bank you’re with or Social Security number, your identity could be at risk. These are some of the dastardly ways someone can try to steal your identity:

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  • Going through your garbage. Many people make the mistake of throwing away bills and bank statements without destroying them. Scammers can go through your trash and find all the information they need to steal your identity.
  • Theft. Criminals can get access to plenty of your personal details by stealing your wallet, purse or even snatching letters from your mailbox.
  • Phishing. Some scammers send emails that look like they’re from an organization you do business with and try to fool you into giving them your account numbers, credit card details and passwords.
  • Stolen or misplaced credit card. Your credit card ending up in the wrong place can open up the floodgate to credit identity theft. Most people use their card a few times a day, so keep an eye on yours to make sure your credit card digits don’t end up on a slip of paper in a crooks pocket.
  • ATM skimmers. Look at the ATM card reader before inserting your card to ensure that it hasn’t been tampered with by someone trying to steal your card details and PIN. If the card reader looks strange, doesn’t match the machine or is misshaped, it’s not worth it to take a chance using that ATM.
  • Shoulder surfing. Always be careful using your smartphone in public, someone could be behind you inconspicuously waiting for you to type in a password or PIN number. Be especially aware of your surroundings when banking at ATMs.
  • Unsecure websites. When shopping on the internet or doing any sort of financial transaction, examine the URL and confirm that it begins with “https.” Look for an image of a padlock in the URL bar to make sure the page is secure.
  • Social networking. Have you ever stopped to think about how much information you give away online? From the personal details you’ve entered to sign up for Facebook and other social networks, crooks can look there to try and track down information like birth dates, where you work, your family details and more.
  • Hacking. Security breaches can happen on any scale, whether it’s to you personally or to a large network that holds the vital details of hundreds of thousands of people.
  • Online scams. Thieves often set up bogus websites that have misspelled URLs of pages that get heavy traffic and try to dupe you into giving up your details. Spyware or malicious software can also install itself on your computer from these sites and steal your personal information.
  • Pretexting. You may receive a phone call, email or message out of the blue from someone posing as an employee of a company of bank that you do business with asking you to validate or confirm your account information. If anything seems suspicious — the person, email address or phone number — end correspondence and contact the organization yourself.

Where can I check my credit score?

How to find out if someone stole your identity

There are a few ways you might be able to tell if your identity has been stolen. If any of the following is happening, you might want to order a copy of your credit report or start contacting your bank and credit card providers to check for fraudulent activity on your accounts:

  • Your credit cards, wallet or important documents — passport or driver’s license — have been lost or stolen.
  • The mail you’re expecting has not arrived yet or you’ve stopped receiving mail.
  • Unrecognizable charges appear on your credit card or bank statements.
  • You receive medical bills for checkups or procedures that aren’t yours.
  • You apply for a government benefit but’ve been informed that you’re already claiming.
  • When it comes time to do your taxes, you discover there are two or more tax returns filed under your name.
  • You receive receipts, bills or invoices for transactions or purchases you haven’t made.
  • There are unauthorized withdrawals from your bank account.
  • You receive letters from debt collectors for debts that aren’t yours.
Should I pull my child’s credit report to check for Fraud?

It’s likely that your child doesn’t have a credit report. However, if they’ve been listed as an authorized user on your credit card account, they might have a credit report with all three bureaus.

There are some signs that could signal fishy behavior involving your child’s credit identity. If any of the following is happening, pull your kid’s credit report to make sure everything is in line:

  • Your child is getting multiple credit card offers.
  • There are credit card bills being sent to your child.
  • You receive a call from a debt collector asking for your child.
  • When your child reaches their teenage years, they’re denied a bank account or have trouble getting a license due to their past credit history.

What to do if you get your identity stolen

If you think you’ve had your identity or parts of your personal information stolen, then it’s important to act quickly. Follow these steps if you think you have been targeted:

  • Contact the authorities. Alert the Federal Trade Commission that someone has stolen your identity and they’ll guide you through the recovery process.
  • Call the police. Any incident or suspected incident of identity theft should be reported to your local police. When detailing the situation, give the police a copy of your FTC identity theft report. Ask the police for a copy of their report or case number for any financial institutions or government agencies who may ask for it.
  • Tell your bank. Contact all of your banking and financial institutions so they can put a hold on all cards and accounts while they check if any accounts have been breached.
  • Credit monitoring service. These services keep tabs on your credit reports from the three main credit reporting agencies and notify you if there’s any changes or strange activity happening. Credit monitoring is typically a paid service to give you additional peace of mind.
  • Place an initial fraud alert. This is a free service offered by the three credit reporting companies — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. This alert will stay on your report for 90 days.
  • Order your credit report. Order a free copy of your report from one of the three credit reporting agencies. You should go through your report to identify any fraudulent accounts that have been applied for or opened in your name and then take actions to have those accounts closed.
  • Freeze your credit. By freezing your credit, your credit report can’t be run and new accounts can’t be opened up under your name. To do this, you have to contact each bureau separately — ask about fees that come along with freezing your account.

How can I place a fraud alert with the three credit bureaus?

If you need to get in contact with any of the three nationwide credit reporting agencies, you can do so by heading to their website, by phone or mail:

Online Phone Mail
Equifax 888-766-0008 Equifax Consumer Fraud Division
P.O. Box 740256
Atlanta, GA 30374
Experian 888-397-3742 Experian
P.O. Box 9554
Allen, TX 75013
TransUnion 888-909-8872 TransUnion Fraud Victim Assistance Department
P.O. Box 2000
Chester, PA 19016

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How to protect yourself from identity theft

There are precautions you can take to avoid becoming a victim of identity theft:

  • Secure your personal documents at home. If you’re throwing any documents away, make sure to shred them first.
  • Protect your mailbox with a lock and remember to redirect your mail if you move.
  • If your purse or wallet is lost or stolen, cancel all your credit cards.
  • Inspect your credit card bills for any suspicious charges. If you receive new credit cards you didn’t ask for or bills for goods and services that aren’t yours, investigate why.
  • Be cautious when using social media and limit the amount of personal information you publish online.
  • Select passwords for your online accounts carefully. Also, use security software on your computer.
  • Treat any request for your personal information over the internet, phone and in person with caution.
  • Don’t conduct any transactions on unsecured websites. Make sure a website is legitimate before handing over any details.
  • Check your credit report regularly.

How can identity theft affect my credit report?

The person assuming your identity can apply for new loans, credit cards and mobile phone contracts in your name with no intention of ever paying back the debt they rack up. They can also max out your existing credit cards and spend funds in your bank account.

All of this information will be recorded in your credit report and affect your ability to access credit in the future.

Bottom line

The most important way to avoid having your identity stolen is to be smart with your information. Make use of the resources at your disposal to secure your personal and financial details to ensure your credit score isn’t being damaged by someone else.

So while identity theft is a crime on the rise and there are more ways that the imposter can be caught than ever before, a cautious approach to managing your credit can ensure you won’t become a victim.

Kyle Morgan

Kyle Morgan is a producer for finder.com who has worked for the USA Today network and Relix magazine, among other publications. He can be found writing about everything from the latest car loan stats to tips on saving money when traveling overseas. He lives in Asbury Park, where he loves exploring new places and sipping on hoppy beer. Oh, and he doesn't discriminate against buffalo wings — grilled or fried are just fine.

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