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Identity Theft

Identity theft refers to fraud committed through assuming a stolen identity to access benefits, resources, or information. Usually thieves aren’t trying to become us, but rather get access to money, benefits, or credit.

Contrary to popular belief, you are more likely to have your identity stolen by those closest to you (that is, your friends and family) than some shadowy hacker. Why is this? The answer is simple: these people are more likely to have access to you and your important information, and you are more likely to trust them around sensitive information. This isn’t to say that you should disregard the threat of data breaches and other technological compromises. Read on to learn more.

How does information get compromised in the first place?

There’s a number of ways that your information can be stolen. Someone who is close to you, like a friend, family member, or coworker, may have access to physical copies of your information or may know passwords to your online accounts. In the physical world, your identity can be swiped by:

  • Stealing wallets, purses, or your mail – including bank and credit card statements and tax information
  • Stealing or making copies of important documents while visiting you in your home
  • Rummaging through your trash or the trash at a business
  • Stealing your information from accounts they have access to (from a password you may have provided or that they stole)
  • Posing as someone who legitimately and legally needs information about you, such as an employer or landlord
  • Buying personal information from “insiders,” such as unscrupulous employees

Some bad actors may try to get you to provide information over the phone that they can then use to either steal your identity or your money. For more information about phone scams, see Common Scams.

  • Scammers claiming to be government officials or police officers requesting money, particularly using gift cards or wire transfers.
  • Callers claiming to be interested in an item you have for sale or rent who say they aren’t available to get the item but will send an agent to complete the transaction.
  • Someone claiming to be from a technology company who wants to help you with a computer problem you didn’t know you had.

There are also a number of high-tech ways that your information can be stolen. Even if you are not online or don’t use online portals to access your information, many companies and organizations may keep your information in databases that are connected to the internet.

  • Phishing emails may entice you to give up your login information for online accounts
  • Malicious websites that are set up to look like legitimate websites and will give you malware
  • Data breaches from large companies, agencies or other organizations, or improperly secured databases that expose information to anyone who happens upon them (these can’t be prevented by you, unfortunately)

What can you do to prevent identity theft?

You can never completely prevent your information from being stolen, but you can lessen the odds and make it more difficult for thieves to get and use your identity.

Monitor your statements. Check your billing, bank, benefits, and credit card statements monthly. Look for suspicious charges, requests for benefits, or for money being moved around.

Shred important papers and cards. Once you’re done paying a bill or don’t need a credit/debit or benefits card any longer, shred them using a shredder. If possible, use a shredder than cross-cuts, or turns papers into confetti. This makes it harder for anyone looking through the scraps to piece together any documents. Not sure if something should be shredded or not? It’s safer to shred anything that might have any identifying information, such as your name, social security number, and any account numbers. It’s not just your regular papers that you need to dispose of. Important personal information can be found in many places, such as prescription pill bottles. These numbers, especially on medication that gets refilled regularly, can be used to steal your prescriptions or call in fake prescription requests. Tear the label off and shred it before throwing the bottle away.

Be careful who you give information to. Sometimes we can’t avoid having to share information with others. If you’re in a position where you must share information with a friend or relative, make sure to pick someone you trust. Monitor your statements and benefits closely to make sure you’re getting everything you’re entitled to. If you must provide information to another entity, agency, or company, inquire as to how they keep and dispose of information. Some organizations, such as your doctor, may have a legal requirement to inform you of how your information is protected and disposed. Additionally, be careful giving information over the phone. Never give your payment card information or social security number over the phone unless you called the entity you’re speaking to. If someone calls you asking to verify your information, hang up. If you suspect that your bank or some other organization that you do business with is calling about a real problem, call them back on an official phone number and speak with a representative. This way, you’ll be sure that you’re talking to the legitimate organization and not a scammer.

Shop and do business on secure websites. When entering information on a form on a website, make sure it has HTTPS protection. You can see if a site has this encryption by looking for a little padlock next to the address bar, a marker of some sort that says the site is ‘secure,’ or by checking that the site address starts with ‘https://.’ This means that the information you’re entering in the site will be encrypted before being sent to the website’s owner and no one will be able to see it.

Have a plan. You probably have emergency plans for all sorts of disasters: car accidents, house fires, bad weather. Do you have a plan for what to do if your identity is stolen? Keep a folder or kit with a list of telephone numbers to call in the event you find yourself in this situation. Some useful numbers to have might be your bank, the Social Security Administration, your local police station, the Internal Revenue Service, your credit card company, and the state Attorney General’s office. You could also include a list of all of your accounts and what benefits you receive, which will make a quick access guide of everything to take inventory of, but if you elect to do this make sure that you keep these documents securely stored where no one can get to them.

What if your identity has been stolen?

Don’t panic, but act quickly. The faster you notify the appropriate institutions, the quicker they can put a stop to any money or benefits losses. If you think you are a victim of identity theft, consider taking the following steps, depending on your situation:

  • Contact your local authorities. Under Florida law, the report may be filed in the location in which the offense occurred, or the city or county in which you reside. When you file the report, include as much information as you can, such as statements, debt collection letters, and credit reports. Some organizations may require you to have a police report or case number in order to dispute charges or receive protections.
  • Contact your bank and credit card companies. If money has been taken from your accounts or charged to your card, you will need to dispute them. Additionally, your bank or credit card company may want to issue you new cards to prevent further charges. They may also provide protection against further charges.
  • Contact the credit reporting bureaus. Report to them that your identity has been stolen and ask about options. You can place alerts on your file, which will notify you if someone attempts to use it. Other options, such as freezing your credit, may be available to you.
    • Equifax: 1 (888) 548-7878
    • Transunion: 1 (855) 681-3196
    • Experian: 1 (888) 397-3742
  • Contact any organization you receive benefits from. If you receive benefits from the Social Security Administration or Veteran’s Affairs, those payments could be impacted by having your identity stolen. Contact these agencies and let them know that you’ve been compromised. They may review recent payment activity and help you lock down your file.
  • Contact the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). If someone has filed a tax return under your name, contact the IRS as soon as possible to report. They will take steps to make sure anyone who files under your social security number must prove their identity.
  • File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission by visiting IdentityTheft.gov.
  • Check out the Florida Attorney General’s site for identity theft.

Once your information is made available anywhere on the internet, it is nearly impossible to remove it. Chances are good that some of your information is already on the internet somewhere, even if it hasn’t been exploited yet. The best course of action is to have a plan in place before anything happens and to be cautious when sharing your personal information with anybody.