Identity theft is one of those threats that’s become so pervasive that it’s hard not to feel like you’ve fallen victim to it at the slightest notion of wrongdoing.
Your credit or debit card was declined, so that sets off the alarm bells in your head. You can’t log into your bank account; surely that means someone’s stolen your password. Your mailbox is suspiciously empty -- or, you’re receiving correspondence you didn’t expect -- leading you to believe that something isn’t quite right.
While these are more likely due to things like card reader errors, momentary forgetfulness or a mixed up postal route, they still could point to your ID being compromised, since identity thieves, scammers and hackers of all sorts will try their hardest to access your money and spend it freely.
Here are five signs your identity might truly be in the hands of someone you don’t want it with (and what to do about it).
Mysterious charges to your credit or checking accounts
Even the smallest of unfamiliar transactions -- a withdrawal here, a purchase there -- may be an indicator that your account’s been potentially compromised. If it’s true, then your card or account numbers may have been obtained through any number of ways; identity thieves may use every means at their disposal, from credit card skimmers to buying your numbers from illegal sources. They’ll test if the card numbers work by making a small purchase in the hopes you won’t notice. If you don’t, trust us -- they won’t keep their spending in check.
Thankfully, most banks and financial institutions are savvy enough to monitor your accounts and intercept strange activity before you have to, but don’t relinquish responsibility to them; the more experienced of identity thieves may nonetheless still slip by your bank’s watchful eyes with relative ease.
Unacquainted credit cards and statements
More than a case of mistaken identity, a stolen identity is more like if you receive monthly statements for an unknown credit card in your name -- or, if you receive a card in the mail that you never applied for. In this case, your personal information has been used and exploited to apply for a credit account (or accounts).
If you’ve been checking your credit report (as you should be, regularly), and you’ve noticed your score has dropped for no apparent reason, it could be because of the hard credit checks that took place when the fraudulent credit applications were placed.
You’re denied credit even though your credit is good
Likewise, if you’ve been checking your credit report and always ensure that you’re working to raise your credit score, getting denied for a recent credit account or loan might come as a surprise to you. It’s one telltale sign that your identity may have been stolen, and someone is using your name to their benefit … and messing up your exemplary credit in the process. If you’re not an avid credit report checker, you might not find out until your score is ruined.
Debt collectors keep calling to collect debts that aren’t yours
Don’t blame the messenger. Those debt collectors who border on harassing you 24/7 are only out to collect a debt they assume is yours, but isn’t. The issue may be over unpaid, overdue bills, or defaulted and delinquent credit accounts that have nothing to do with you, but everything to do with someone swiping your identity to send you into debt.
This may be the time to worry the most about identity theft, since dismissing persistent calls from a collection agency (whether the claims are true or false) could wind up landing you in court, where disputing a case of stolen or misappropriated identity becomes more challenging than before.
Duplicate tax returns in your name
You’d be just as surprised as the Internal Revenue Service to learn that more than one income tax return was filed in your name. There’s a chance that it could be due to some internal error on Uncle Sam’s part, but it’s also very likely that your personal/financial info has leaked and used to someone else’s benefit.
Multiple tax returns aren’t the only IRS-related problem victims of ID theft may encounter; according to the Federal Trade Commission, another warning sign is if the IRS questions reported income on your tax return from an employer you don’t work for.
Keeping your identity safe
It doesn’t mean you have to go incognito or look over your shoulder for identity thieves. Staying proactive and vigilant with your financial behavior is the best precaution in protecting your sensitive information. Follow some of these tips to start:
- Keep your vital info at VIP level. Never reveal important information, like your name, address, email and phone number, credit card or bank info, PIN numbers, passwords or Social Security numbers unless it’s to an authorized source. Your bank, for example, will never ask for your PIN; the IRS will also contact you strictly by snail mail, never by email or the phone.
- Scour your statements and credit report. Study them, learn them inside out, go through them with a fine tooth comb; checking for inconsistencies, mistakes and/or discrepancies and errors in your financial/Social Security statements and credit report can identify if any unauthorized activity or charges have been made on your behalf.
- Mix up your passwords. A prime combination of letters, numbers, symbols and case-sensitive text will keep hackers and thieves at bay from trying to crack the code. Pick a password easily decipherable, and your accounts become wide open for use.
- Be safe, not sorry with cards and documentation. Even if you finally find your lost credit card underneath the couch cushions, call your card provider to cancel your account as soon as your plastic goes missing. There’s no way of initially knowing if it was stolen or not, so taking the precaution and waiting for a card reissue is the smarter way to roll.
- Contact the proper authorities, if necessary. If you feel you’ve been the victim of fraudulent activity, follow up with the necessary authorities beyond your bank or credit card issuer -- it could be filing a report with the Federal Trade Commission or local police department, or contacting credit reporting agencies (i.e. TransUnion, Experian and Equifax) to place a temporary hold on your credit report to prevent new accounts from being opened (usually lasting 21 days).
- Shop for identity theft insurance. Identity theft protection keeps you from having to foot every bill you incur while trying to get your life back on track, and may provide monitoring services, too. Learn more about identity theft insurance here.
Freaking out over a possible case of identity theft isn’t a reaction you need to take with some of the above steps in place. Learn to spot the signs of theft, know how to prevent a data breach from happening, and use them in tandem to keep your finances -- and your identity -- safe.
What are some of your tips for preventing identity theft? Leave your comments below.