Identity theft can happen to anyone at any time, and it is important to keep safety measures on the top of our minds as we continue to rely on digital platforms in our everyday lives. According to The Consumer Sentinel Network¹, there were 4.8 million identity theft and fraud reports received by the FTC in 2020, up 45 percent from 2019.
The thought of someone accessing your sensitive personal information can be scary, but there are actionable steps you can take to prevent identity theft. In order to really understand how you can prevent identity theft from happening, it’s important to know about what it is.
Identity theft is any misuse of your personal information by another individual for the purposes of obtaining cash, credit, goods or services. Personal identity theft is when your name and social security number, or other personal information, are used to establish accounts and obtain credit in your name. It can also occur when your credit card information is used for fraudulent purchases or cash advances, or when your name and checking account information is used to process payments from your account without your knowledge or consent.
There are many different ways in which your identity can be obtained for the use of fraudulent purchases or obtaining cash. The ramifications that follow having your identity stolen can be complicated and stressful, because after you are a victim of fraud, it is your responsibility to track down what was taken and sort out any charges with your financial institution. That is why it is so crucial to take the necessary steps to protect yourself from the different fraud tactics thieves can use to obtain your personal information.
Dumpster Diving is one of the most common tactics used by thieves in order to acquire your personal information. Thieves can sift through your garbage to find any form of documentation. The best way to combat this is by disposing of all documents that may contain your name, address, account numbers, birth date or social security number in a proper fashion. The use of a cross shredder is very effective in disposing of documentation with sensitive information. Additionally, you should always shred unwanted credit card solicitations. Another way to avoid thieves from accessing your information through the trash is to enroll in electronic statements or “e-statements,” which are a great way to avoid receiving paper bills and statements at home.
Shoulder Surfing is another tactic scammers use, which involves them observing you entering passwords or PIN codes in a public place. This is why it is important to be observant when performing transactions at ATMs when you are not alone. You should also try limiting financial or banking transactions on your laptop to times when you are in a secure or private area. If you are not alone or in a secure area, exercise caution while entering personal information in public places where people can watch what you are typing like libraries or coffee shops. Setting up multi-step password authentication will normally prevent this from happening and is recommended even if you don’t frequently access accounts in public places.
Skimmers are devices that are installed most commonly at ATMs or gas station pumps that capture your card and PIN information by copying the magnetic strip on your card. Do not swipe your card in scanners that appear to be tampered with or look abnormal. You should always make sure never to lose sight of your credit or debit card when making a purchase or paying balls, and always pay attention to monthly credit and debit card statements. Report any unrecognized transactions immediately and report the card as stolen to prevent future charges.
Phishing is a method of identity theft where you receive an email, text or call asking you for your personal information, for you to donate money, to verify your identity, etc. This is a tactic used to gain access to personal information or your finances. In order to protect yourself against this, never respond to a request that asks you for personal information through the internet or over the phone. If you are called by anyone saying that they are a representative from your credit card company or government agency, do not engage with them. Instead, hang up and call back the official number for the company or agency and ask if you were recently contacted. Your financial institution will never require your personal information in order to continue a service or an account via email or text because these methods can be insecure. When it comes to sharing your personal information, you should always feel confident and safe. Always trust your instinct. If something feels off, it probably is.
While there is no perfect way to protect yourself against identity theft, understanding how it could happen to you and taking the necessary steps to protect yourself are important. To avoid becoming a victim, you should review your personal credit report on a regular basis. You can get a free credit report once a year from the three major credit bureaus, Experian, Transunion, and Equifax, at annualcreditreport.com². If you ever suspect any suspicious activity, you can always consider adding a freeze to your credit that can be added or removed at any time with zero charge.
Tactics used by thieves are ever evolving, and it is important to stay up to date on the latest identity theft trends. The Federal Trade Commission3 (FTC) is a free service and a great online resource for all news and information related to identity theft and protection.
Bryan Watkinson is the Assistant Vice President and BSA Officer within the Risk Operations group at Affinity Federal Credit Union in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. Bryan is a member of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners as well as the Association of Certified Anti-Money Laundering Specialists. Additionally, Bryan has worked with financial institutions in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Asia and the Middle East on fraud and anti-money laundering engagements over his 15 years in the industry.
This information is for informational purposes only and is intended to provide general guidance and does not constitute legal, tax, or financial advice. Each person’s circumstances are different and may not apply to the specific information provided. You should seek the advice of a financial professional, tax consultant, and/or legal counsel to discuss your specific needs before making any financial or other commitments.