How to Protect Against Identity Theft and Fraud

Detect and Prevent Misuse of Personal Information by ID Thieves

The last thing we should have to worry about during these difficult times is identity theft and fraud. Unfortunately, regularly reported data breaches such as the one affecting nearly 8,000 business owners who applied for emergency loans and stories about stimulus check and unemployment benefits fraud, show that anybody could be at risk at any time. 

Depending on what information is exposed or taken in a data breach, consumers could be victims of many different types of identity theft and fraud. Here are steps you can take to protect yourself, whether your information was compromised in high profile breaches or not.

Protect Existing Accounts

With a credit or debit card number, a thief can access existing bank and credit accounts for in-person transactions.

  1. Check your monthly credit card and bank statements. You can sign up to receive alerts through text, email, or an app when charges are made to your card.
  2. Use credit cards instead of debit cards for all online and in-person purchases if possible. Consumers have more legal protections against fraud with credit cards and can also avoid having to wait for stolen funds from their checking accounts to be returned.
Safeguard Future Accounts

With just your name and Social Security number (SSN), an ID thief can open new accounts, including cell phone, credit card, loan, and utilities accounts.

  1. The best way to prevent fraudulent accounts from being opened in your name is by placing freezes on your credit reports at all three nationwide credit bureaus -- Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion -- plus, the National Consumer Telecom & Utilities Exchange (NCTUE). A credit freeze blocks access to your credit history and scores, denying thieves the ability to open fake credit accounts.
  2. Place free, renewable fraud alerts, if you decide not to place credit freezes on your credit reports. They don’t block access to your credit reports, but they do notify creditors that they should try to verify your identity before opening a new account in your name.
  3. Check your free credit reports at Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion for any fraudulent activities or sign up for free credit monitoring (but don't pay for subscription services.) Federal law allows you to request one free copy of your credit report every 12 months from each credit reporting company. However, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers currently have access to free weekly online reports through April 2021.
Tax Refund and Stimulus Fraud

With a full name, birthdate, and SSN a thief can attempt to file your taxes, claim your tax refund, and claim your COVID-19 stimulus payment.

  1. File your taxes as soon as possible, before thieves do.
  2. Use the IRS’ “get my payment” form to claim your COVID-19 stimulus payment, if the IRS does not already have your direct deposit information on file, before thieves do.
  3. Get an Identity Protection (IP) PIN, if you qualify.
  4. Be alert to notices about a return already filed, additional taxes you owe, refund offsets, collection for a year you didn't file, or records showing income from an employer for whom you did not work.
Unemployment Benefits Fraud

The New York Times reported on thieves claiming unemployment benefits using stolen Social Security numbers. File for your unemployment insurance benefits before thieves do.

Social Security Benefits Fraud

With a full name, birthdate, and SSN, a thief can try to open a “my Social Security” (MySSA) account in your name and change your direct deposit information to his or her own checking account. Coupled with other information that can easily be found online, such as place of birth, a thief can also try to claim your benefits over the phone.

  1. Sign up for your “my Social Security” (MySSA) account before thieves claim it and change your direct deposit info to route into their checking accounts. (A credit freeze on your Equifax credit report will also block the creation of a MySSA account because the Social Security Administration uses Equifax credit reports for identity verification.)
  2. Even if you don’t receive Social Security benefits yet, checking your MySSA account can help you spot changes to your personal information that might indicate thieves trying to claim your benefits over the phone.
Health Care Services/Medical Benefits Fraud

With a full name, birthdate, SSN (and sometimes an existing health insurance account number), a thief can attempt to receive benefits and services in your name. Sign up for online accounts with your health care and insurance providers to periodically check for any fraudulent services on your statements.

Other Fraudulent Activity

With a full name, birthdate, SSN, and driver’s license number (which can be turned into a fake license card), a thief can attempt numerous types of fraud, such as applying for a job, getting insurance, renting a home, or even committing crimes in your name. There are many other consumer reporting companies, besides the three big credit bureaus, that specialize in collecting particular information, including your check writing, employment, insurance claims, and tenant histories.

Check your free annual consumer reports with companies that specialize in collecting information often misused by criminals. 

Phishing

With just a phone number or email address, a thief can use “phishing” scams to attempt to collect more information needed to commit any of the above more severe crimes.

  1. Avoid clicking on links or attachments from unsolicited emails and texts even if they appear to be from companies, organizations, or people you know. Contact the sender using a website or phone number you know is legitimate.
  2. Don’t provide personal or financial information by email, text, or unsolicited call.
Resolving Identity Theft

Visit Identitytheft.gov, the government’s official website that will walk you through clear checklists of actions you can take to report and recover from different types of fraud.

Click here for more tips to protect yourself from identity theft and fraud.