Almost one-third of Americans have been a victim of identity theft in 2023. Thus, identity theft remains a prevalent issue, causing emotional distress, financial ruin, and frustration to millions. That’s why learning how to protect yourself from identity theft is important.
The good news is we’re here to help. Knowledge, awareness, and the right tools can serve as your personal armor. This comprehensive guide is your road map to understanding the complex landscape of identity theft.
In this guide, you will learn:
What types of identity theft there are
How to know if your identity has been stolen
How to secure your finances from identity theft
Which tools to use to prevent identity theft
How to report identity theft
We're living in 2023, and the protective measures available are smarter, faster, and more reliable than ever before. Keep your identity safe for your security and peace of mind.
Let’s get started.
Identity theft can manifest in many forms, depending on the information stolen or the purpose of the theft. Here are some of the most common types.
This is the most common form of identity theft. An attacker uses someone else's identity to start new accounts with their name or use their credit card info.
Keep an eye out for:
Strange Withdrawals or Charges — You notice suspicious charges on your credit card or money gone from your bank account.
Calls About Debts You Don't Know — Various people call you about debts you've never heard of.
Credit Applications Getting Denied — Your credit applications get shot down out of the blue, even though you think you've got a good credit score.
Tax Notices — The tax folks send you a notice saying more than one tax return was filed in your name, or you're supposedly making money from a job you don't have.
Financial identity theft is the most common form of identity theft.
This is when someone takes another person's health insurance details to obtain healthcare services like medical treatment and prescription drugs. Criminals can even create fake claims to insurance companies.
Medical identity theft is dangerous because it can alter your medical history. This could give doctors and hospitals the wrong info when they're trying to make healthcare decisions.
Keep an eye out for:
Unexpected Medical Bills — You start getting bills for medical services you never had.
Wrong Info on Medical Records — Your health records show medical conditions or treatments you never had.
Insurance Claim Problems — Your health insurance company says no to a real claim because the records say you've hit your benefit limit. Other times, they may refuse to cover you because your medical records show a condition you don't actually have.
Prescription Drug Issues — Your prescription can't be filled because your medical records say you've already gotten it or you're given a medication that doesn't match your health condition.
Tell your insurance company and healthcare team if you think you've been a victim. Also, check if the info in your healthcare records is yours.
Medical identity theft is dangerous because it can alter your medical history.
Criminal identity theft is when a bad guy uses someone else's info during an arrest. They might use a phony ID, like a bogus driver's license. This can lead to all sorts of legal problems for the victim, like false criminal records and arrest warrants.
Keep an eye out for:
Warrants for Your Arrest — There are arrest warrants in your name for stuff you didn't do.
Strange Criminal Records — Background checks show criminal records or activities you know nothing about.
Out-of-the-Blue Court Summons — You get a summons to appear in court for charges you've never heard of.
Traffic Tickets You Don't Know About — You get a notice about unpaid traffic tickets for places you've never been to or for times when you weren't driving.
Employment Check Hiccups — You have unexpected problems with employment background checks.
Getting Denied for Government Services — You're suddenly being turned down because they say you have a criminal record.
Criminal identity theft is when a bad guy uses someone else's personal info during an arrest.
Criminals may steal children's identities because their credit histories are usually clean. They will then apply for credit in that child’s name. The theft can go undetected for many years until the child applies for credit for the first time.
Keep an eye out for:
Credit Card Offers or Bills — Your child receives unsolicited credit card offers or bills. Children should not have a credit history until they begin using credit as young adults.
Calls from Collection Agencies — If debt collectors call for your child, this is a clear sign that someone may have fraudulently opened accounts in their name.
Denial of Government Benefits — When you apply for government benefits for your child, you are told that those benefits are already being claimed with your child's Social Security number (SSN).
Notification of a Tax Bill — You receive a notice from the IRS saying your child didn't pay income taxes. Or that your child's SSN was used on another tax return.
Criminals typically steal a child’s identity to apply for credit in that child’s name.
This is when someone creates a new identity by mixing together real and made-up info. For example, they might use a legit Social Security number but with a fake name. They often use the personal info of a kid that still needs to be put in the credit bureaus' system.
Then they go for loans and credit cards, often making payments for years as they keep upping the credit limits. After a while comes the "big splurge," when they max out the cards and then vanish.
Because synthetic identity theft doesn't always mess with someone's existing accounts, it’s tough to spot. But here are a few signs to look out for:
Strange Credit Report — Your credit report shows accounts you don't know about or has a name or address that isn't yours.
Credit Cards or Loan Statements You Didn't Ask For — You get credit cards or loan statements in the mail that you didn't ask for, and they're under a different name.
IRS Heads-up — You get a notice from the IRS saying that the SSN for you or your child was used on someone else's tax return.
Synthetic identity theft is when someone creates a new identity by mixing real and fake information.
Tax identity theft is when a scammer uses someone else's info, like a Social Security number, to file a bogus tax return and snag a refund.
Keep an eye out for:
More Than One Tax Return in Your Name — The IRS sends you a letter informing you that more than one tax return was filed in your name.
A Heads-Up from the IRS About Extra Income — The IRS gives you a shout about earnings from a job you've never had.
Surprise Tax Transcript in the Mail — You receive a tax transcript in your mailbox that you didn't ask for.
Trouble with Your Refund — Your real refund is late, or the IRS tells you that you've been paid a refund you never got.
Filing your taxes early can help you beat the scammers to the punch. Some states even offer six-digit PINs for extra security after checking your identity.
If you think you're a victim of tax identity theft, react quickly to any IRS notice by calling the number they give you. You should also contact your state's tax agency to protect your state tax account. Plus, consult a tax identity theft protection service.
Tax identity theft is when a scammer uses someone else's info to file a bogus tax return and steal a refund.
This happens when a scammer gets hold of a person's existing accounts. They could do this by sending phishing emails or tricking you into installing malware (such as spyware, trojans, adware, or ransomware). They might even switch up passwords or addresses so you can't access your own account.
Keep an eye out for:
Unexpected Password Changes — You get notifications about password changes you didn't make. Also, you're suddenly locked out of your own account.
Transactions You Didn't Do — You spot charges on your credit card or money missing from your bank account that you didn't do.
Weird Changes to Your Account Settings or Info — You notice odd changes to your personal info, like your email address, phone number, or home address.
Emails or Mail Stop Coming — If your emails or physical mail from your bank or other places suddenly stop, a scammer might have changed your contact info to keep you from noticing any fishy transactions.
Account takeover identity theft happens when a scammer gets hold of a person's existing accounts.
Social identity theft is when someone pretends to be someone else on social media or other online places. This can seriously mess with your good name and might even cost you money.
Keep an eye out for:
Password Resets or Changes — You get alerts about password resets or changes you didn't make. Also, you can't get into your account all of a sudden.
Posts or Messages That Aren't Yours — You spot posts, comments, or messages from your account that you didn’t post.
New Accounts in Your Name — You stumble upon social media accounts under your name that you didn't set up.
Odd Friend Requests or Followers — People you know are getting friend requests from an account that seems like yours but isn't.
Complaints from People You Know — Friends, family, or workmates mention weird or inappropriate messages or posts from your account.
Emails about Actions You Didn't Do — You're getting emails about stuff on your social media account that doesn't ring a bell, like signing in from a new device or place.
Social identity theft is when someone pretends to be someone else on social media or other online places.
Employment identity theft is when criminals use someone else's Social Security number and other personal details to get a job, especially if they're not supposed to work in the country.
Keep an eye out for:
IRS Alerts — You might get a heads-up from the IRS saying you owe extra tax, have a smaller refund, or worked for more employers in a year than you did.
Wrong Income Reported — The income shown on your tax return isn't what you earned.
Social Security Statement Doesn't Add Up — Your Social Security statement shows you've earned more than you did.
Job-Related Services or Benefits Blocked — You're suddenly not eligible for unemployment benefits because records say you're employed when you're not.
Failed Background Check Notice — You don't get a job because a background check reveals employment you didn't know about.
Employment identity theft is when criminals use someone else's details to obtain employment.
Seniors can be prime targets for identity thieves because they tend to have higher credit limits. Also, they might catch or report identity theft slower than others. Thieves could steal Social Security payments, forge checks, or misuse power of attorney privileges.
Keep an eye out for:
Surprise Financial Documents — Seniors receive credit card statements, bills, or other finance-related papers for accounts they didn't open.
Debt Collectors Are Calling — Calls come in about debts the senior doesn't recognize.
Credit Applications Are Denied — Seniors suddenly can't get credit, or they're given worse credit terms.
Problems with Benefits — A senior gets a note from their health insurance about hitting their benefit limit, or they can't get a benefit because records say they've already got it.
Tax Troubles — The IRS reaches out to a senior about odd activity, like a tax return filed in their name that they didn't submit.
Legal and Financial Documents Change — There are unexpected or unexplained tweaks to wills, deeds, power of attorney designations, etc.
Senior identity theft occurs when an attacker uses older adults' identities to steal their Social Security payments and more.
Identity theft can lead to big headaches in your personal life and finances. But you can take some steps to defend yourself:
Watch your personal details. Be choosy about who you share your personal details with, and always question if it's really needed. Avoid giving out personal info over the phone, mail, or the internet unless you're the one who got in touch or you're sure about who you're dealing with.
Be careful with unknown callers. If a stranger calls asking for your personal info, be cautious. If something doesn't seem right, you can contact the organization directly.
Ask questions. If someone asks for personal details like your Social Security number or birth date, feel free to ask them why they need it, what will happen if you don't share it, how they'll keep it safe, and who else will see it.
Keep your SSN safe:
Only share your SSN when it's vital, and ask how it will be protected.
Only carry ID, credit, and debit cards when you need them. Leave your Social Security card and any documents with your SSN at home.
Keep any paperwork with your SSN on it stored securely or shred it when you're done with it.
Keep your personal documents safe. Keep all your important paperwork, like credit card or bank statements, in a safe spot at home. And don't just toss them in the trash where someone could nab them. Destroy them properly — a cross-cut shredder would be perfect.
Manage your mail securely:
If you're getting new checks, have them delivered somewhere safe. Get a mailbox with a lock that the U.S. Postal Service approves.
Check out Informed Delivery from USPS — this service lets you see your incoming mail to spot if anything's gone missing.
Going paperless with electronic statements and bills is a good call, plus it's kinder to the planet.
If you're going to be away, have the post office hold your mail till you're back.
Be on the lookout for phishing. Avoid falling for unexpected messages asking for personal info. Even if they look legit, they're probably not. Avoid clicking links or downloading attachments from mystery senders in emails or texts.
Be careful with work computers. Do not keep personal stuff on your work machine. You may not have total control over who sees it.
Ditch electronics safely. Ensure you've wiped any personal details off of personal electronics before disposing of them.
Watch what you share on social media. Be careful with the personal details you share online. Cyber thieves can use info like your birthday or pet's name, stuff people often post, to crack security questions and break into your accounts. Avoid posting their names, birthdays, or photos to keep your kids safe.
Phone security is key. Your phone's a treasure trove of personal info that identity thieves would love to get their hands on. Yet, only about half of us lock our phones regularly. So, make it a habit to lock your phone when you're not using it, and use a passcode or fingerprint ID. For banking, use an app instead of a mobile browser.
Beware of shoulder surfers. When you're typing in sensitive info on your phone or laptop in public, be aware of who might be looking over your shoulder. Some people are out to steal your info.
Guard your phone number. Only give out your number if you really have to. A call-blocking app can help ward off spam calls and possible phishing attempts.
Go undercover online. Using private browsing or incognito mode can help stop websites from tracking your every move.
Clean your browser regularly. Clear out your browser history and cookies now and then. This helps prevent websites from tracking your activity online.
Don't give out too much information about yourself until absolutely necessary.
Here are some easy but crucial steps to shield yourself from identity theft and keep your financial info safe.
Analyze your credit card slips. They shouldn't display your full account number. Call the Office of the Attorney General if you see more than the last four digits.
Think about saying no to most pre-approved credit offers by calling 1-888-567-8688 or visiting optoutprescreen.com. You want those offers to stay in the right hands, especially if your mail gets stolen.
Keep an eye on your financial statements. Regularly review your bank and credit card statements, and anything else involving your money, to spot any fishy transactions. Also, make a mental note of when your statements usually show up every month. If they don't arrive, someone might have changed your mailing address to cover up dodgy charges.
Keep tabs on your credit reports. Check your credit reports from all three main credit bureaus to spot any unauthorized activity. Ensure everything's reported correctly, and be on the lookout for any red flags, like strange accounts.
Freeze your credit. This stops anyone from seeing your credit reports without your say-so. It's a handy way to stop identity thieves from opening new accounts under your name.
Monitor your kids' credit reports. Keep an eye on their credit reports to ensure nothing strange happens.
Credit cards are your friends. Credit cards generally have your back more when it comes to fraudulent charges. Credit card companies usually offer more solid fraud protection than debit cards if your card details are nicked.
Get a head start on your taxes. Filing your taxes nice and early can help avoid tax identity theft, where someone sends in a fake tax return under your name to swipe your refund.
Go digital with your wallet or contactless payments. These services switch your card info for a one-time-use token, so the stores get that instead of your real card details.
Freeze your credit to stop anyone from opening new accounts under your name.
No single tool can completely bulletproof you against identity theft. However, combining a bunch of them can help significantly reduce your risk. Here's a list of some tools you can use:
Password Managers — Tools like Norton’s LifeLock, LastPass, or Dashlane can create and store strong, unique passwords for your online accounts. This way, if one account gets breached, the rest stay safe.
Authenticator Apps — Apps like Google Authenticator, Microsoft Authenticator, or Authy provide an extra layer of security for your accounts. These apps create time-sensitive codes you can use after typing your password.
VPN (Virtual Private Network) — A VPN turns your internet connection into a secret code, making it tougher for others to glimpse your online activity. This is important when you're using public Wi-Fi. Some options include ExpressVPN, NordVPN, and CyberGhost.
Antivirus Programs — Antivirus software can shield your gadgets from nasty malware and viruses that could be used to nab your personal information. Examples include Bitdefender, Norton, and McAfee.
Firewalls — A solid firewall can block unwanted access to your network. This can be a standalone product or a part of a security suite.
Secure Browsers — Some web browsers like Brave or Tor, or Bitdefender’s Safepay, are built with safety and privacy as top priorities.
Secure Chat Apps — Apps like Signal, WhatsApp, and Telegram employ end-to-end encryption to keep your messages private between you and the recipient.
Identity Theft Prevention Services — Services like LifeLock, IdentityForce, and Experian IdentityWorks keep tabs on your credit and personal info. They’ll inform you if they spot signs of potential identity theft.
Tools for Checking Your Email Address — If you're worried that a data breach may have exposed your email address, you can check sites like Have I Been Pwned.
Credit Monitoring Services — Credit monitoring services monitor your credit reports and alert you to any changes that could spell fraud.
Shredders — A cross-cut shredder can help guard against identity theft for physical documents with sensitive info.
Tools like Norton’s LifeLock can create and store strong, unique passwords for your online accounts.
Reporting identity theft in the U.S. involves a few steps. Here's a rundown on how to go about it:
Contact the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). File an Identity Theft Report with the FTC either online at usa.gov/identity-theft or over the phone at 1-877-438-4338. The FTC will help you out with a recovery plan and allow you to monitor your progress.
Tell the police about the crime. Bring your FTC Identity Theft Report copy, a photo ID issued by your government, proof of your current address (such as a mortgage statement, rental agreement, or utility bill), and any other documents you have that pertain to the theft.
Give your banks a heads-up. Let your banks, credit card companies, and any other financial institutions you're connected with know that you've fallen prey to identity theft. They can walk you through their specific processes to make your accounts safe.
Contact the credit bureaus. Report the identity theft to one of the three major credit reporting agencies (Experian, Equifax, or TransUnion). Whichever one you call has to inform the other two. Ask for a fraud alert, making it more challenging for an identity thief to open more accounts in your name. This alert is free and will stick to your report for one year (or seven years if you've been a victim of identity theft).
Go through your credit reports. Once you've placed a fraud alert, you're entitled to free credit reports from each of the three credit bureaus. Check these reports for inquiries from companies you have yet to talk to, accounts you didn't open, and debts on your accounts you can't explain.
Keep a record of everything. Keep a detailed log of your chats and make copies of all correspondence. You might need these as evidence.
Keep your recovery plan in check and update when needed. The FTC's IdentityTheft.gov site can offer a personalized recovery plan based on your circumstances, and it will auto-fill forms and letters for you when it can.
After reporting, closely watch your financial and personal info for signs of more fraudulent activity. This means regularly checking out your credit reports and financial statements.
Report identity theft to one of the three major credit reporting agencies.
Be choosy about who gets your personal info, and always ask yourself if it's necessary to share.
If anyone's poking around for your personal info, don't hesitate to ask them why they want it.
On the go? Only bring along the ID, credit, and debit cards you really need. Your Social Security card is safest at home.
Squirrel away your important papers in a secure place.
Hitting the road for a while? Remember to put your mail on hold until you're back.
Watch out for sketchy emails or texts with links or files to download. Better to just steer clear of clicking.
Don’t share too many personal details on social media. Some stuff is better kept a secret.
Keep your phone locked up tight with a PIN, password, or even biometric security like a fingerprint or face ID.
In general, it's a good move to decline most credit offers that appear out of the blue.
Take a peek at your bank statements every so often to make sure all's well.
Consider putting a freeze on your credit. It's a solid way to stop identity thieves from setting up accounts under your name.
Get your taxes filed ASAP. This can help prevent identity thieves from swiping your tax refund.
Leverage tools like password managers, VPNs, firewalls, and antivirus software to pump up your defense against identity theft. If you’re unsure which antivirus software is best, check out our list of the most effective antivirus suites.
If you find yourself a victim of identity theft, know the drill: reach out to the FTC, file a report with your local PD, inform your bank, and contact the credit bureaus.
Octav Fedor (Cybersecurity Editor)
Octav is a cybersecurity researcher and writer at AntivirusGuide. When he’s not publishing his honest opinions about security software online, he likes to learn about programming, watch astronomy documentaries, and participate in general knowledge competitions.