(If you already understand ID Theft and just want a Checklist of suggested security items, please go to this webpage www.ComputerSecurityNW.com/identity-theft-protection and click on the “ID Theft Protection Checklist” button.)
Introduction to Identity Theft
We have all most likely had our credit card information stolen. Frankly that doesn’t concern me. Chances are my credit card company will notice it and contact me. Even if the charges go through, I can dispute the charges and not have to pay them. That is not identity theft, but credit card fraud. I guarantee if you meet someone who has had their identity stolen, you will be highly motivated to protect yourself by taking the steps listed here.
Although it’s hard to track how many people have experienced identity theft (ID Theft), it’s a growing problem. In 2021, losses from ID theft cost Americans at least $5.8 billion and 1.4 million ID theft cases were reported to the FTC; some reports claim that there were as many as 27 million victims (IdentityTheft.org and applecard.idprotectiononline.com). Some polls estimate 40% of all U.S. citizens have experienced some form of ID theft. Protect yourself so you don’t become one of them!
What is Identity Theft and How can it happen?
The basic idea of financial or medical ID theft is when someone uses information about you to access your existing financial accounts or create new accounts in your name. This can include things such as applying for new credit cards, opening checking/savings accounts, filing tax returns for refunds (tax fraud), using healthcare services (medical ID theft), buying a car, and even taking out a home loan! You are left to pay those charges! They can also drain your current bank and retirement accounts. At worst, you lose thousands of dollars and spend hundreds of hours trying to recover; at best, only your credit score is ruined, and you still spend time recovering. Some may never fully recover financially or emotionally from the experience.
There is an abundance of personal information about each of us on the Internet, especially on social media as well as information released in previous security breaches (that you may not know about). If someone can find enough information about you, such as your name, address, phone number, email, date of birth, and/or social security number (SSN), then they can get credit in your name! Do you wonder if your SSN is known to hackers? Assume it is. (See this article: “Everyone’s Social Security Number Has Been Compromised”)
Some Compelling Examples
If you are not already convinced that you need to protect yourself from ID Theft, then I ask you to take 5 minutes to watch these two YouTube videos: “People Share Identity Theft Stories” and “Identity theft victim: 'It's been hell'”- Nothing more should be needed to convince you to take these steps now, for you and your loved ones.
ID Theft Protection - Introduction
Fortunately, protecting yourself (before you become a victim) is straightforward and easy. (If your identity has already been stolen, you will have a longer road ahead of you; that is addressed at the end of this article.) Have you heard the joke about not needing to outrun the bear, just outrun the person you are hiking with? :-) Well, criminals are looking for the easy way to make money. If you harden your defenses and make it difficult for them, they will move on to easier targets.
The foundation of ID Theft protection is to freeze your credit profile/reports and maintain control over them. This prevents someone from getting approval to open an account in your name. You must also establish your identity at government websites for taxes and social security. If you don’t create these accounts, then criminals are very willing to do that for you!
Your protection plan must include the three-point approach of (1) Education, (2) Prevention, and (3) Monitoring. This article provides basic education, ample resources (listed in the Resources page), and actual steps for ID theft prevention and credit monitoring.
Overview: A Layered Defense
Although no one can guarantee you will never have your identity stolen, what I suggest here is a plan that includes multiple layers of defense to create a strong fortress. The likelihood of having your identity stolen will be minimized and your ability to recover (if needed) is maximized. This plan includes the following major steps, which are explained in detail at the web post here: www.ComputerSecurityNW.com/identity-theft-protection
1) Freeze your credit report with the major credit and checking/savings agencies. Freezing your credit has no impact on using current credit cards, bank accounts, and lines of credit you already have. It just means that prospective creditors are prevented from accessing your credit report/file, thus effectively preventing new credit accounts being opened in your name.
- NOTE that you will need to lift the credit freeze when you legitimately want to apply for new credit accounts, so you must be willing to live with the inconvenience of first thawing your credit.
- You must freeze the credit of every person in your household who has a Social Security Number.
2) Purchase Identity Theft Insurance. This will (1) monitor your credit reports & alert you of changes, and (2) provide protection & recovery services.
3) Implement strong digital defenses. You must follow good cybersecurity practices to protect against hacking and scams/social engineering, including protecting access to your personal accounts. This will include implementing a Password Manager program and Multi-factor Authentication (MFA). Take time to educate yourself to recognize social engineering scams.
Protect Your Family – Anyone with SSN:
You also need to protect personal information for those who might not be watching, such as your children, the elderly, and deployed military personnel. Take the steps listed here for each person in your household who has a social security number (SSN) and encourage others to do so. Someone can get ahold of a child’s SSN and open credit cards in their name; you may never know until the real person grows up and applies for credit, only to find that their credit is ruined since no one paid all those bills.
Please see this website link for complete details and directions for freezing your credit, purchasing identity theft insurance, and implementing strong digital defenses, including a one page Checklist of these security items: