What is identity theft and how can it harm your PC?

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Identity theft, aka identity fraud, is one of the fastest growing crimes in America. In 2019, approximately 1 in 15 people were victims of identity theft, and there is a new victim of identity fraud every two seconds. Those are pretty alarming statistics, especially when you consider the damage that identity theft can inflict on your credit status, reputation, and finances, and the time investment required to recover from the theft. 

But just what is identity theft? What does it mean to be a victim of identity fraud? Identity theft occurs when someone steals your personal information and then uses it without your permission for personal and financial gain such as accessing your bank accounts, applying for benefits or making purchases in your name. 

The damage caused is not only significant; it’s also often far reaching and long lasting. It can hurt your job prospects, cause your car insurance rates and medical costs to rise, ruin your credit, give you a criminal record, and more. 

The many faces of identity theft

Furthermore, there are many ways to commit identity theft. For example, thieves can gain access to your personal information by stealing your purse, breaking into your mailbox, or going dumpster diving to steal documents you thought you disposed of. Sensitive data can also be stolen via the Internet; cyber criminals can take your personal information from your social media posts, through phishing and other cyber attacks, and from data breaches. In fact, identity theft occurs in 65% of all data breaches. 

The new kid on the block: synthetic identity theft

And then there’s synthetic identity theft, which differs from traditional identity theft in that the criminals don’t actually steal your identity; they create a new one using a combination of real and fake info. They do this by combining a fictitious name, birth date and address with a real social security number.  Children and the elderly are particularly vulnerable to this type of fraud as the elderly tend to check their financial records infrequently and children rarely need to use their social security number until they’re much older. As a result, the theft can continue unnoticed for years. 

The warning signs

The warning signs of identity theft are varied, but some of the top signs include the following:

  • an unexpected change in credit scores
  • bills stop coming in the mail
  • you start receiving collection notices 
  • your child starts getting credit card offers or calls about debts and late payments
  • there are claims on your insurance benefits that you don’t recognize
  • you see financial transactions and bills for purchases you didn’t make  
  • a police officer detains you for reasons that make no sense to you
  • you’re denied employment because of a background check

And the preventive measures 

While knowing the warning signs of identity theft is important, even more important is knowing how to protect yourself. Below are some simple, yet effective measures for preventing identity theft:

  • Lock your mailbox and collect your mail regularly.
  • Shred documents with personal data before you dispose of them.
  • Keep your social security card in a secure location. Don’t carry it with you.
  • Install a reputable antivirus solution on your computers.
  • Be alert to phishing and spoofing campaigns.
  • Always use a secure browser.
  • Create strong passwords and never share them.
  • Regularly monitor your financial accounts and credit reports.
  • Be cautious about information you share on social media.

Your best bet

Your best bet for protecting yourself is to always be diligent, to always be alert for identity theft warning signs, and at a minimum, to always follow the precautions mentioned above.