Here's How To Know If Your Identity Has Been Stolen

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Gaetano DiNardi

Head of Content at Aura

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    Is Someone Using Your Identity? 

    Identity theft happens every day.

    Estimates are that 47% of Americans experienced financial identity theft in 2020.

    With nearly half of the population affected, you're probably wondering if someone has stolen your identity.

    In this guide, we'll reveal the top red flags associated with identity fraud, expose the most common types of scams, and then show you how to check for all the different types of identity theft.

    How Does Identity Theft Happen?

    To steal your identity, con artists need your personal information. Here are some of the most common identity theft techniques:

    Phishing Attacks

    Scammers will send spam emails, texts, or even call you pretending to be a representative from Facebook, a government agency or law enforcement. They’ll use social engineering attacks to pressure you to “confirm your identity” by asking for personally identifying information such as your Social Security number, and then use that information to scam you online and commit crimes.

    Physical Theft

    If a thief comes across your driver’s license or Social Security card, they can use that information to commit identity fraud. You probably didn't know this, but criminals don't need much to steal your identity. Your ID alone provides enough information that can be used for identity theft. Criminals may also try to steal your physical mail to obtain financial information such as your bank account number (to commit bank scams) or credit card account numbers.

    Data Breaches

    Modern day scammers use emerging cyber threats to hack a company’s database or obtain hacked information from the Dark Web. Stolen data can include any information you've saved on a shopping website, from passwords to credit card details to Social Security numbers. Sometimes scammers don't even need stolen information as they can get what they need from your online footprint.

    Shoulder Surfing

    Believe it or not, scammers with shifty eyes can steal your identity by lurking over your shoulder while you're entering login details to important online accounts on your mobile device. Another classic shoulder surfing move also happens at the ATM while you're entering your debit card pin number to withdraw cash.

    10 Ways to Recognize Identity Theft

    1. Your credit report doesn't seem accurate.
    2. Suspicious activity on your credit card and bank statements.
    3. Unexpected physical mail.
    4. Missing physical mail.
    5. Your personal documents are lost or stolen.
    6. Suspicious phone calls and voicemails.
    7. Suspicious texts and emails.
    8. Unfamiliar SMS verification codes.
    9. Your income tax return is way off.
    10. Unfamiliar devices have access to your online accounts.

    1. Your Credit Report Doesn’t Seem Accurate

    Reviewing your credit history is one of the most effective ways to know if your identity has been stolen.

    Unfortunately, most people don't check their credit report until it's too late. For example, imagine you're attempting to buy a new car at the dealership but the lender denies you a line of credit. This could be a sign of credit theft.

    If you have any doubts, request a free credit report from one of the three major credit bureaus—Equifax, Experian, or TransUnion. You can get a free credit report from the federally authorized site, AnnualCreditReport.com.

    Check for unfamiliar charges on your credit card accounts or suspicious inquiries on your credit file. The major credit bureaus will typically include these details in your credit report, which will impact your overall credit score.

    If you find any evidence of fraudulent activity on your credit report, you may be a victim of identity theft.

    Related: Someone Bought a Car in My Name! What Should I Do?

    2. Suspicious Activity on Your Credit Card and Bank Statements

    Credit card fraud was the second-most-common type of ID theft in 2020 — with 2020 being the first year in history to document more than 2 million cases of fraud.

    Monitoring your bank account and credit card statements can help protect yourself against most types of financial fraud.

    Look for unauthorized charges or withdrawals on all your debit and credit accounts. Don’t ignore the small transactions either, as thieves will often start with a small purchase to test whether a card works—and to gauge how vigilant the account holder is.

    Check out this segment from CNBC to better understand why credit card fraud in the U.S. a problem that's only getting worse (and how hackers steal credit card numbers).

    Related: 14 Hidden Dangers of Identity Theft That Can Ruin Your Life

    3. Unexpected Physical Mail

    What’s inside your mailbox can be a red flag for identity theft.

    The first and most obvious sign is unfamiliar mail. If you see credit card statements or letters from agencies you don’t recognize, it could be a sign of loan fraud. Meaning, someone is applying for loans or credit cards in your name and possibly racking up fraudulent charges that you could be on the hook for.

    A new trending fraud is with regard to unemployment scams — if you get a letter in the mail from unemployment with information about benefits you never claimed, you are most likely the victim of identity theft.

    Another possibility is medical identity theft. In this scenario, you may receive written notices from a health insurance company regarding unfamiliar procedures, or invoices from a doctor's office that you never visited.

    Related: What Can a Scammer Do With Your Medicare Number?

    4. Missing Physical Mail

    Another red flag is missing physical mail.

    In fact, 210 million packages were stolen from Americans in 2021.

    Thieves will steal packages right off your front porch. They'll steal mail directly from your mailbox, and even submit a change of address request to try and route all your letters and packages to an authorized address.

    It's especially important to monitor your physical mail when you’re expecting sensitive deliveries, like a new credit card or a replacement Social Security card.

    5. Your Personally Identifying Documents Are Lost (or Stolen)

    It's critical that you know where all of your identifying documents and debit/credit cards are at all times.

    If any of the following items are lost or stolen, you may be at risk for identity theft:
    1. iPhone / Android.
    2. iPad / Tablet.
    3. Laptop / Computer.
    4. Wallet / Purse.
    5. Passport.
    6. Driver's License.
    7. Social Security Card.
    8. Debit Card.
    9. Credit Card.
    10. Insurance Card.

    While you’re at it, remove any extra credit cards from your purse or wallet. It’s best to travel with just one or two credit cards, along with one form of ID, like your driver’s license.

    If your wallet contains dozens of credit cards, and then you lose your wallet, you've created a jackpot opportunity for identity thieves.

    NEVER store your Social Security card in your wallet. Your Social Security number is at the top of every scammer’s wish list, and you can’t afford to let it fall into the wrong hands.

    If your Social Security card is lost or stolen, you should contact Social Security administration immediately and request a replacement card at ssa.gov.

    6. Suspicious Phone Calls and Voicemails

    We've all seen the "scam likely" caller ID label before. Sure, it’s easy to ignore robocalls, telemarketers, and automated voicemails. But it could be a sign of a deeper problem.

    Paying close attention to those unwanted calls and voicemails could help you recognize identity theft. Beware of unsolicited calls from debt collectors, credit card companies, and utility companies.

    If you receive a suspicious call from a financial institution, it may indicate that someone is applying for credit cards or attempting to open bank accounts in your name.

    If you receive a sketchy voicemail, don’t return the call. Instead, dial the company’s official number to verify that the message is legitimate.

    For a closer look at how prevalent spam calls have become, check out this segment from CNBC.

    7. Suspicious Emails and Text Messages

    A flurry of strange emails doesn't necessarily mean your inbox has been hacked. But it's still a cause for concern. Your email address and phone number are often compromised whenever data breaches occur. Comparitech found that 49% of U.S. companies have experienced a data breach in 2021.

    Given how widespread this problem has become, you might get notifications about new accounts created in your name, or flagged transactions from your bank or credit card.

    During the holiday season, fake text message scams are particularly prevalent during Black Friday and Cyber Monday. It's not uncommon to get a fake delivery notification via SMS, just like this example below.

    Related: The 10 Worst Walmart Scams & Fraudulent Schemes of 2022

    8. Unfamiliar SMS Verification Codes

    Two-Factor Authentication (2FA) is a popular method of strengthening access to your online accounts by requiring two methods of identity verification.

    When you enable 2FA on services like Gmail, PayPal, Amazon, Facebook and others - you'll be asked to verify your identity with a special code before given access to the desired account.

    We've all gotten text messages like this one before. It contains a unique, one-time verification code.

    Image Credit: How to Geek

    But what happens if you receive an SMS containing a verification code that you never requested? 

    It means an unauthorized person has successfully decoded your password, and if not for 2FA, your account would have been compromised!

    Unfortunately, 2FA via SMS creates security vulnerabilities due to a new type of scam called SIM swapping.

    Therefore, instead of receiving 2FA codes via SMS, you should always strive to use an authentication app such as Google Authenticator, Microsoft Authenticator, or Okta.

    9. Your Income Tax Return is Way Off

    Tax fraud is a simple, but lucrative scam. A fraudster will impersonate you by reporting income that qualifies you for a tax refund — except the thief cashes the check, then vanishes.

    Beware of notifications that a tax return has been filed on your behalf, or if you receive a W-2 (or other tax forms) from a company you never worked for. You can also go online and review your tax return status on the official IRS website.

    This type of scam is most common at the beginning of the year, before most people have filed their annual taxes with the IRS.

    Related: Stolen Tax Refund Check? Here’s How To Get Your Money Back

    10. Unfamiliar Devices Have Access to Your Online Accounts

    We're using more devices to access our online accounts than ever before.

    According to a report by Statista:

    "The average American had access to more than ten connected devices in their household in 2020."

    Given how many connected devices we are using today, it's a good idea to regularly conduct a security review on your most sensitive online accounts.

    Check for suspicious activity and thoroughly review all the devices that are currently logged into your online accounts.

    Periodically, you should reset your passwords, enable 2FA and force all other devices to sign out.

    If you see logins from unfamiliar locations or devices you don’t recognize, sign out of those sessions and change your password immediately.

    For example, Google allows you to see devices that have accessed your account.

    If you receive a notification like the example below, it means you've been hacked and must secure your account immediately.

    Identity Theft Victim's Recovery Plan

    1. Change all your passwords.
    2. Use a secure password manager.
    3. Force all unfamiliar devices to sign out.
    4. Enable 2FA via authenticator apps (not SMS).
    5. Notify your bank and cancel your accounts.
    6. Report identity theft to the FTC.
    7. File a police report.
    8. Freeze your credit.
    9. Use antivirus software.
    10. Get ID theft protection.

    1. Change All Your Passwords

    Preventing identity theft starts with having strong, unique passwords. Most people know they need to change all their passwords, but they keep putting it off because it's a headache. Change your usernames and easily guessable common passwords to avoid being financially ruined.

    Related: How to Protect Yourself from Identity Theft (11 Steps)

    2. Use a Secure Password Manager

    Don't be lazy. Avoid selecting commonly used passwords for your most precious online accounts.

    Another bad habit is choosing simple passwords that you can easily remember off the top of your head. If you can remember it, that means it can be hacked. Instead, use a secure password manager like Aura.

    aura password manager

    3. Force All Unfamiliar Devices to Sign Out

    There's a good chance your accounts were accessed by foreign devices from unfamiliar locations. You'll need to make sure they're logged out.

    4. Enable 2FA via Authenticator Apps (Not SMS)

    As explained, SMS is vulnerable to SIM swapping, and therefore you should use apps like Okta or Google Authenticator to secure your sensitive accounts.

    5. Notify Your Bank, Cancel Your Accounts and Enable Fraud Alerts

    When identity theft occurs, you'll need to contact your bank. They'll assist you through the process of canceling your checking account, savings account and obtaining new credit cards.

    You'll need to transfer all your funds from the old accounts to your new accounts, and set up a new instance of online banking as well. If you have a lot of credit cards, this process can be a hassle, but it's worth the extra effort to secure everything and start fresh.

    Finally, you should contact the credit bureaus and enable fraud alerts.

    6. Notify the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)

    You should report identity theft to the Federal Trade Commission if your identity is compromised. The FTC handles fraud cases and can provide assistance. You can file a claim with the FTC online at IdentityTheft.gov.

    If you need more help, follow this fraud victim's checklist for step-by-step instructions on how to recover from fraud.

    7. File a Police Report

    In addition to reporting identity theft to the FTC, you should contact your local law enforcement and file a police report. If you are covered by identity theft insurance, a police report may be required in order to submit an insurance claim.

    8. Freeze Your Credit

    Consider freezing or locking your credit. Aura also provides credit monitoring and social security number monitoring, for ultimate peace of mind.

    Pro tip:
    You can instantly lock your credit with the switch of a button on the Aura mobile app!

    9. Use Antivirus Software and VPN

    Ransomware, malware and spyware are running rampant today. Don't let these harmful applications wreak havoc on your online privacy.

    Try an antivirus solution like Aura to keep your devices protected.

    Additionally, public Wi-Fi will leave you exposed to all types of security vulnerabilities. Public internet connections like those at coffee shops, libraries, and airports can be tempting—but they’re not secure. If possible, use a VPN to protect your data while browsing publicly.

    10. Get Identity Theft Protection

    Identity theft is a huge hassle, and incredibly frustrating. You'll need to cancel bank accounts, credit cards, and may even need to consider changing your Social Security number.

    If you don't know what to do if your identity is stolen, start with identity theft protection.

    Aura is equipped to handle many of the above steps proactively. With Aura, you can get family identity theft protection along with a $1,000,000 insurance policy for each adult family member.

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    1. Financial identity theft and fraud
    2. Medical identity theft
    3. Child identity theft
    4. Elder fraud and estate identity theft
    5. “Friendly” or familial identity theft
    6. Employment identity theft
    7. Criminal identity theft
    8. Tax identity theft
    9. Unemployment and government benefits identity theft
    10. Synthetic identity theft
    11. Identity cloning
    12. Account takeovers (social media, email, etc.)
    13. Social Security number identity theft
    14. Biometric ID theft
    15. Crypto account takeovers