Identity theft takes place when someone steals your personal information and uses it without your permission. When they get ahold of details like your name, address and Social Security number, they can open bank accounts, take out loans, make purchases and even file taxes using your personal information instead of their own — which makes it appear as though you’re the one taking these actions. Identity theft can impact your credit, your ability to get a loan and even your access to utilities for your home. And proving that it wasn’t you, clearing debts off your record and getting back any money you lost can take plenty of time and effort.
Learning how to recognize the warning signs of identity theft can help you avoid it — or at least put a stop to it in its earlier stages and begin the recovery process. To get started, take a look at nine of the most common indications that your personal information may be in the hands of an identity thief, along with steps you can take to protect yourself.
Strange Documents Start Appearing
You might start receiving bills from companies you don’t recognize. When someone steals your identity, the individual may use your name, date of birth, Social Security number and home address to make purchases and sign up for services. Going months without receiving mail from companies that usually send you mailed bills is also cause for concern. Identity thieves may divert your mail to their addresses so they can obtain the identifying information on your bills and account statements. Having more information makes it easier for the thief to impersonate you.
Regularly review your bank and credit card statements to ensure that the purchases are legitimate. Some people set aside time each week to check back over all their pending and posted transactions in their accounts. If you don’t recognize a vendor name or a purchase amount, immediately call your financial institution. A representative will give you more details about the charge to help you determine whether it’s fraudulent. If the charge is fraudulent, the rep may advise you to close the account completely.
Remember that no unexplained charge is too small to worry about. Any purchase you didn’t make means an unknown person has access to your banking information. Scam artists often take several small amounts of money to test the waters before stealing more.
Bills From Strange Companies
Scam artists use identity theft to open up accounts in other people’s names. This tactic allows a thief to get the goods or services they want even if the company wouldn’t give them an account based on their own financial history. If you receive notices, bills or statements from companies with which you have not opened any accounts, immediately check your credit report and contact the companies in question. Rather than calling any numbers in the notice you received (which could be another type of identity theft called phishing), look up the number to the company that has mailed the notice. Give them a call and make someone there aware that you didn’t open up an account.
Rejections and Disconnections Appear and Occur
Has your life insurance application been rejected because of a diagnosis you don’t have? Are you receiving medical bills from a doctor you’ve never visited? Is your health insurance company refusing to pay a valid claim because you’ve somehow already reached your coverage limit? These are all cause for concern. Scam artists intercept insurance information to get free medical care while billing another person’s insurance. If you suspect you’re a victim of this type of theft, notify your insurance company and doctor. You can protect yourself from this by carefully reading all medical bills and insurance benefit statements you receive. If anything seems unfamiliar, don’t hesitate to ask questions.
Utility disconnections may be a sign of identity theft. Thieves use a stranger’s information to open up services for themselves. Sometimes, the thief doesn’t go through the trouble of creating a new account — they may simply find a way to access your account to buy their own service. Victims often become aware of this when their own services get disconnected. For example, if a thief opens up a garbage pickup account at their address with your identity, the utility company may automatically discontinue service at your actual address. If this happens to you, check your bank statements and credit report, and immediately notify the company involved.
Rejected Tax Returns
The IRS only accepts one tax filing per year per tax identification number. Most people use their Social Security number as their tax ID number. If the IRS rejects your tax return, it usually means that someone else has already filed a return using your information in hopes of getting your refund check. If this happens to you, file a police report and contact the IRS.
If you receive notice of a bounced check, carefully review your recent transactions and balances to determine what’s in your account. Contact your bank if you still can’t determine why the check bounced. The missing money could be the result of an identity thief making purchases in your name. If this is the case, your bank can open a fraud investigation. Because bank accounts are insured by the FDIC up to $250,000, you’ll most likely get your money back. You’ll also receive information from the bank about closing the breached bank account.
Notices Show Up Via Mail or Email
Sometimes, identity thieves give police officers the name and identifying information of another person when they’re arrested. Victims are often unaware until they receive notice of a warrant for their arrest. If you receive mail regarding a warrant or court proceedings you’re unaware of, act quickly. Contact your local police department. They can help you clear your name, which may involve showing up in person to give fingerprints or other physical evidence that you’re not the person who was present at the arrest.
One of the clearest ways to find out you’re experiencing identity theft or that you might is that you receive written notice about it. Often, this means that your identity was part of a large online data breach in which hackers stole customer information from a large company that you have a relationship with. The notice will include steps that the company has already taken and steps that you can take to further protect yourself.
If you become a victim of identity theft, there are a few more things you can do to keep your information safe. You can place a free security freeze on your credit so the credit bureaus are aware fraud has occurred and no other accounts can be opened in your name. There’s also a division of the Federal Trade Commission with the sole purpose of helping identity theft victims create personal recovery plans.
Identity theft monitoring services can alert you to suspicious activity involving your Social Security number and credit report. Some credit card companies offer free versions of this service, and some offer monthly subscriptions for monitoring programs. Whether you do it yourself or hire a professional, being conscious about protecting your identity and taking steps to do so can help you improve your overall financial health.