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By Lois Sullivan
Identity theft is a real problem that affects millions of Americans every year. It occurs when someone uses the financial or personal information of another without permission, often to open new accounts, steal money or make purchases. Some criminals use the identities of others to avoid legal repercussions when they face arrest. Knowing how to tell if someone is using your identity can be essential, so we compiled this list of tips to help you thwart identity thieves.
One of the most telltale signs of identity theft is new financial accounts opening in your name. Some scammers open new credit accounts and make purchases, while others set up utility and phone accounts in others' names.
If you get any notices in the mail indicating you have a new account in your name but are confident you didn't open it, you need to take immediate action. Contact the company where the account was opened and close the account as soon as you can.
Fraudulent charges on your credit card or bank account indicate someone is using your financial information. Thieves are getting better at stealing private information through online transactions, although some still stick to the traditional method of taking and using someone else's credit or debit card. Contact the financial institution or credit card company as soon as you notice any unusual account activity. If you lose your physical card, contact the issuer immediately to cancel it and issue a new one.
Another form of identity theft involves using an individual's Social Security number. This number should be kept secure and private. What should you do if your Social Security number gets leaked in a security breach or through accidental sharing? Contact the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to report your concern. You may also want to consider freezing your credit temporarily or requesting to receive fraud alerts. An identity thief might use your Social Security number to apply for and work at a job, which can affect your tax reporting and cause several financial issues.
Identity thieves may use your personal information to file for unemployment benefits in your name. Victims of this scheme may only find out when they receive notice from their state unemployment insurance agency or employer, or if they try to apply for unemployment.
The unemployment payments usually are deposited to accounts the imposters control. But sometimes payments get sent to the real person’s account, instead. If this happens to you, the imposters may call, text or email to try to get you to send some or all of the money to them. They may pretend to be your state unemployment agency and say the money was sent by mistake. This is a “money mule” scam and participating in one could cause you more difficulties.
Tell your employer about this fraud, report it to your state’s department of unemployment security (you may be able to do this online) and file a police report. The Federal Trade Commission has a special recovery plan for unemployment fraud victims which includes an identity theft report.
Some identity thieves use others' personal information to seek medical care, especially if the thieves don't have access to insurance benefits. This activity is known as medical identity theft, which can cause many problems for those targeted. In addition to seeking medical care, this identity theft may involve obtaining prescription drugs or purchasing costly medical devices.
Financial scammers might attempt to claim others' tax refunds, which can provide quick access to cash and personal information. If you file your tax return and get a notice that someone has already filed a return under your Social Security number, this activity usually indicates fraud. Contact the IRS and the FTC to take the necessary steps toward resolution.
By taking steps to protect your personal information and prevent potential thieves from getting access to your finances, you can reduce the risk of having your identity stolen.
The most crucial step to take regularly is checking your credit report. You have access to one free credit report annually, authorized by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. To receive your free report each year, visit annualcreditreport.com, complete the online form and mail it, or contact the organization by phone. Avoid using other sites to get credit reports, as some charge fees while scammers may run fraudulent sites.
As you review your report every year, look for new credit accounts that you didn't open. It's also important to check your credit score. If yours goes down unexpectedly, look into why. In some cases, fraudulent accounts that are used but not paid off could result in a declining credit score.
Keep your personal information as private and secure as possible. When you receive mail with your address, Social Security number or financial details, file it safely in a secured location or shred what you don't need to keep. Simply tossing this type of information into the trash or recycling can put you at risk for identity theft. Only use trusted websites with proven encryption and security measures if you purchase items online. Avoid giving out any information you don't have to share.
Always keep an eye on your bank and credit card statements to watch for signs of unauthorized activity. It's always easier to resolve a problem when you catch it early, so take action if you notice any fraudulent charges on your accounts. Many financial institutions will cancel credit or debit cards in cases of compromised accounts. If your credit card provider doesn't allow you to cancel your card, request a new one with a different number to avoid future problems.
Anytime you receive a medical bill or notice from your health insurance company, review it carefully. Confirm that you or a dependent received the care indicated on the medical statements. Verify that all dates, locations, and charges are accurate. You can always contact the health care provider for confirmation if you're not sure whether a medical bill is accurate.
Some insurance companies send these notices by mail, while others issue electronic notices by email. It's easy for digital notifications to get filtered into spam or other folders in your inbox. Do what you need to mark the sender as safe or whitelist the company's primary email address. You want to make sure you're always able to receive and review the charges sent to your insurance company, or you could end up with a hefty bill for medical services you didn't receive.
When you use programs or websites that require you to share personal or financial information, such as for banking, tax filing or finance management, always set up multi-factor authentication when possible. Multi-factor authentication requires at least two credentials to log into an account, such as a password and a code you receive via email or text message. You might also be able to use your fingerprint or a facial scan, depending on the device you use to log into the site or app.
Knowing how to tell if someone is using your identity requires being proactive. You can reduce the risk of identity theft by taking steps to protect your identity from scammers and dishonest individuals. If you have experienced identity theft, the FTC and your local police may be able to help resolve the situation. Make sure to take immediate action to close financial accounts and freeze your credit if you suspect that someone might be using your personal information.
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