If you're among the 143 million Americans that got Equihacked (and, even if you aren't), you're likely wondering how to guarantee you don't become an identity theft victim.
Here's the bad news: You can't, though to be fair, that was true before Equifax's worst data breach ever. There's too much sensitive data out there for thieves to use in all sorts of ways to ever really be shielded 100%. (That's actually part of the reason everyone is freaking out about the Equifax breach.)
Here's the good news: There are steps you can take to minimize the odds. A credit freeze, for starters, will stop a fraudster from opening up loans and credit cards in your name. And, if there was ever a year to file your taxes early, well, consider 2018 it. (You can find some more tips for surviving Equifax's data breach from hell here.)
It also helps to know how to spot fraud, if and when it does happen. Yeah, we know, not the greatest answer ever, but it's a easier to undo whatever a thief has done — and to prevent further damage — if you report the fraud to the proper authorities right away. (Also worth mentioning here: identity theft insurance, which can help you restore your identity and your credit post-crime.)
So, while — fingers crossed, you never actually spot them — here are the big signs someone else is using your identity.
1. Weird stuff is on your credit report.
OK, time to reiterate it's a really, really, really good idea to put a credit freeze on all of your credit reports right now (like, seriously, this instant). That'll block access to them and subsequently prevent hackers from taking out loans in your name. You can learn more about credit freezes, including how to do one, here. But if you're passing on the suggestion — or, even if you aren't, given how much time there was between the breach and when Equifax announced it — you'll want to keep an eye out for inaccurate or new, unfamiliar information on your credit report.
Credit accounts or credit applications you don't recognize are a good indicator (obviously) that something is wrong, but even a mysterious address can be a sign of things to come. Fortunately, you can check your credit reports for free every 12 months via AnnualCreditReport.com.
2. Your credit score takes a nose-dive.
It's totally understandable — and a good idea — to check your credit more than once every 12 months in this post-Equihack world. And there are plenty of ways to do that, even without paying the nominal fee a credit bureau charges for an extra credit report. There are a bunch of sites online that let you keep an eye on at least your credit score every few weeks or so. Plus, lots of credit card issuers are offering some free monitoring or, at the very least, an updated credit score on your monthly statements, these days. If your digits suddenly and unexpectedly take a dive, well, that's the go ahead to pull your full credit reports and check for that weird stuff we mentioned earlier.
3. You're getting offers for terrible credit cards in the mail ...
The technical term is subprime financing and solicitations for some are a subtle indicator someone is taking out (and not paying) loans in your name. That's because lenders pre-screen credit files and send targeted offers to potential new customers. If you abruptly go from getting swanky travel reward credit card solicitations to offers for "no-credit-check required" plastic with 24.99% annual percentage rates, well, again, it's time to pull your credit report and check for fraudulent accounts.
4. ... & calls from debt collectors. Like, all the time.
Same rule applies here. Sure, there's a chance you have, say, a medical debt you don't know about, but you still want to check your credit reports if you get an unexpected call from someone looking to collect.
5. You're denied a loan you thought you had in the bank.
See what we did there? OK, fine, never mind.
Apply this rule to other services that generally require a credit check, too, like a lease application, insurance policy or cellphone contract.
6. You file your tax return ... only to learn 'you' did already.
Yes, a stolen Social Security number can be used to file a fraudulent tax return. And while the IRS is working on intercepting them, there's still a chance you'll file your taxes only to find out Uncle Sam received your paperwork already. Note: If that happens, you'll need to notify the IRS by filling out this Form 14039.
7. You get a W-2 or 1099 for a job you never worked.
That's a big sign someone is using your SSN to get work. Other tip-offs you're the victim of employment-related identity theft? A Social Security statement showing more earnings than you actually made, a notice from the Social Security Administration your benefits were adjusted or denied due to wages you didn’t earn and a bunch of other notices from the IRS you can read about here.
8. Your health insurer says you've hit your coverage limit, even though you haven't see a doctor all year.
That might mean someone is using your SSN to get medical treatment or buy prescription drugs. Consider it also a warning sign if you get a medical bill from a provider you've never visited or your medical records suddenly show you have a condition you don't actually have. Note: You can keep an eye out for medical identity theft by regularly reviewing your medical and health insurance statements, like the Explanation of Benefits or Medicare Summary Notice you get after treatment.
9. There's charges you didn't make on your credit or debit card statement.
This probably feels obvious, but we're bringing it up, given the Equihackers stole data from 200,000 credit cards.
P.S. As a general rule, it's also not good if money goes mysteriously missing from your checking or debit card account.
If any number of these things happen to you — and, again, fingers crossed, they don't — be sure to file a police report, dispute the information with creditors and the credit bureaus and notify the Federal Trade Commission ASAP. An FTC complaint and police report are instrumental to disputing any identity theft that crops up after the initial issue.
For more on what to do after identity theft — and, when you should freak out over a stolen identity — check out our identity theft index.