What can a scammer do if they get your home address?
Identity thieves have developed thousands of highly technical ways to get your sensitive information. But one of the most common frauds is actually one of the simplest: the change of address scam.
A change-of-address scam is a type of mail fraud where scammers trick the postal service into diverting your mail to a new address. They then use your bank statements and other sensitive material to steal your identity.
So, how can you protect your most sensitive mail from falling into the wrong hands?
In this guide, we’ll explain exactly how a change-of-address scam works, how to spot the red flags that you’ve been targeted, and what to do if you’ve been scammed.
What is Change-of-Address Fraud?
Change-of-address fraud, also known as a change-of-address scam, is when an identity thief makes an unauthorized request to the postal service to change your mailing address in order to intercept private information and sensitive documents.
But how can a stranger change your address, even if you haven’t moved into a new home?
How the Change-of-Address Scam Works
The United States Postal Service (USPS) has a secure online change-of-address form that requires verification and documentation of a bank withdrawal. Unfortunately, change-of-address requests made through the mail aren’t nearly as secure.
Here’s how scammers take advantage of these vulnerabilities to illegally change your address:
- An identity thief figures out your contact information such as your full name and address. They might find this by stealing your physical mail or buying your basic information off the Dark Web. You can see if your account or personal information is available to hackers with Aura's Dark Web Scanner.
- That person (or accomplices) submits a USPS change-of-address form through the mail via the U.S. Postal Service™. No verification is required for mail-in applications.
- The scammers divert your mail to the new mailing address where they have access.
- They open your mail and access your bank statements, drivers license renewals, and other sensitive information they can use to rob you or conduct financial crimes under your name.
It’s important to note that the change-of-address scam should only work if the scammer uses a mail-in request.
For online changes, the USPS website requires a digital payment to cross-check your bank account with your address. Unfortunately, some victims say that even the online system has allowed scammers to make changes to their address.
Pro tip: If you choose to change your address online, make sure you’re using the right website. Scammers have started to create fake change of address websites that promise to update your information for you and charge excessive fees. Make sure you only use the official USPS change of address website.
What Can Scammers Do if They Change Your Address?
The change-of-address scam is one of the most straightforward identity crimes. The perpetrators only need your home address and a forged signature—which isn't verified by the postal inspection service.
With that information, an identity thief can redirect your mail and take control of valuable information. If this happens to you, the consequences of identity theft can hit hard:
- You can face expenses. If scammers gain access to your debit card or new credit cards, they can quickly run up fraudulent bills and leave you with a lot of debt. The change-of-address scam also ramps up during the holiday season as scammers target mail containing cash and gift cards.
- Your credit score can be damaged. Even a failed application can have a negative impact on your credit report. This drop could harm your chances of securing a car loan or mortgage until you resolve the matter with credit bureaus—which could take years.
- Your identity can be stolen. With access to sensitive information like pay stubs, bank statements, and healthcare details, identity thieves could open new accounts or order a new driver’s license, which they can then use for further crimes under your name. (You can find out more on the USA.gov website.)
- You could "lose" your home. If you stop receiving mail, you could miss the signs that a criminal is committing deed fraud.
Although USPS is trying to prevent address fraud, there are still flaws in the system that criminals can exploit.
The postal service sends a move validation letter to both your previous mailing address and the new address whenever they receive a change-of-address request. But those letters can take weeks to arrive.
At the same time, scammers will place a vacation hold on any mail going to your current address, giving them time to exploit your mail at the new address before you catch on.
5 Warning Signs of Change-of-Address Fraud
Change-of-address fraud can be easy to pull off. But there are a few warning signs that can tell you if it’s happening to you.
Here are five of the most common signs that you’re being targeted by a scammer:
- You receive a change-of-address confirmation form in the mail. If you ever receive mail from the USPS, open it immediately. By default, the USPS sends a confirmation of an address change and a validation letter. If you get either, call your local post office immediately to confirm if anyone filed a change-of-address form.
- You stop receiving mail at your home address. If you notice a significant decrease in the volume of mail you usually receive, call the post office to check that your details are still the same.
- Your credit card’s billing address changes. If you try to use your credit card and get a notification that the billing address is incorrect, this is a red flag. Contact the bank immediately, as you might need to cancel the account.
- You get a notification of a new account in your name. As with the other warning signs, take prompt action to inquire about potential fraud with your bank or post office. If you didn’t approve this new account, you should close it immediately.
- You’re seeing other signs of identity theft. The sensitive information that scammers get from a change-of-address fraud can lead to full identity theft. Beware of suspicious activity on your credit card, strange phone calls, unfamiliar SMS verification codes, and other signs that you’re the victim of identity theft.
Victim of a Change-of-Address Scam? Do This, ASAP
If you notice any of the warning signs above, you’ll want to act fast. Speed of response can be the difference between a minor inconvenience and thousands in fraud damages.
As soon as you think you’ve been the victim of a change-of-address scam, follow these steps:
- Contact your local U.S. Postal Inspection Service office.
- If you don’t know the phone number for the local office, contact the general U.S. Postal Inspection Service at 1-877-876-2455.
- Press option “4” to report mail fraud.
- Alternatively, you can file a report online — Visit the official website for the USPS at usps.com.
- Provide as much information as possible to help postal inspectors track down the criminals.
It’s a good idea to keep detailed notes about any evidence of suspected fraud. This includes details from your mail, online interactions, suspicious phone calls, or any difficulties you encounter using your credit cards or bank account.
How to Protect Yourself from Change-of-Address Fraud
If fraud has already occurred, your first priority is to mitigate the damage. Follow the steps above and work with the post office to restore your proper address. You might even want to contact the FTC and file a police report for identity theft.
Then, it’s time to make sure you never become a victim again.
Here are five tips to help you protect your sensitive information from a change-of-address scam:
1. Go paperless with your bank and other sensitive accounts
Mail fraudsters can’t steal what they don’t have access to. Request that financial institutions and healthcare providers send all correspondences to you via email. By switching to paperless communications, you can ensure that no sensitive information goes to the wrong mailbox.
2. Collect your mail daily (or have someone else do it)
A full mailbox is a treasure trove of information for scammers. If you don’t have a secure mailbox, make sure you collect your mail quickly. If you’re going out of town, get someone else to pick it up for you or submit a USPS Hold Mail Request.
3. Shred all your mail before you throw it out
Change-of-address fraud is so common because it only requires a small amount of your Personally Identifiable Information (PII). Safeguard your identity by shredding account statements and anything that could contain your sensitive information.
Want to be extra sure a scammer can't get your mail? Mix a few pieces of each shredded document in with your garbage instead.
4. Check for secure URLs when shopping and working online
Scammers don’t need to steal your physical mail to get your address information. When shopping online or using third-party websites, make sure you’re not giving away sensitive information to the wrong people.
To start, check that the URL of the site you’re visiting is spelled correctly. Scammers will often use “near identical” site URLs to scam you (for example “UPSP.com” instead of “USPS.com”).
Then, make sure the site is “secure”. This means that:
- The URL begins with “HTTPS://”
- There is a green padlock icon by the URL
Secure websites encrypt your data so that scammers and hackers can’t access it.
You can learn more about secure websites from the Better Business Bureau (BBB).
5. Set up fraud monitoring and scam alerts
The faster you realize you’re getting scammed, the less likely a thief can make your life miserable. Aura’s identity theft and fraud monitoring tools alert you in near-real time of any suspicious activity on your bank accounts, Social Security number, or credit file.
Aura also offers a $1 million identity theft insurance policy for eligible losses resulting from identity theft.
Pro tip: Use your credit card instead of your debit card for purchases. You can dispute fraudulent charges made on a credit card. However, it’s not as easy to reclaim the lost payment if you use a debit card or PayPal.
The Bottom Line: Change-of-Address Scams
Change-of-address fraud is easy for scammers to attempt. Unfortunately, if you take your mail for granted, identity thieves can do a lot of damage before you realize anything is amiss.
Be proactive about protecting your identity from mail fraud. If you notice mail is missing or you start receiving strange documents, don’t ignore it. Act quickly and contact the postal service and then file an identity theft claim.