Identity Theft

Think your identity is safe? Think again! Identity theft is an ongoing problem that affects millions of individuals each year, which is reflected in several studies.

Financial consultant Javelin Strategy & Research reported there were 12.7 million identity theft victims in the United States in 2014. And a Bankrate survey showed 46 percent of Americans was or knew someone who was a victim of identity theft in 2014, up from 38 percent in 2008.

So how can you stop identity theft? Here are five things you need to know:

Criminals can steal your identity in a variety of ways.

The National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC) notes criminals can steal your identity by:

  • Unlawfully obtaining credit card statements and other mail from private and curbside mailboxes.
  • Going through garbage cans or communal dumpsters in search of cancelled checks, credit card and bank statements, along with pre-approved credit card offers.
  • Illegally accessing computers, smartphones and tablets that contain personal records and stealing this data.
  • Filing a change of address form in your name to divert mail and gather personal and financial data.

Your identity is always at risk, but those who understand the dangers associated with identity theft can take the steps to minimize the risk of this problem affecting them both now and in the future.

Identity theft can be life-threatening.

It may take weeks, months or years to recover from identity theft. And if you're the victim of medical identity theft, your life could be in danger.

According to North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, medical identity theft happens when someone "uses your name or your health insurance information to see a doctor, get a medical procedure or medication, file claims or receive other medical goods or services." A criminal can pretend to be you, and his or her medical diagnoses will be added to your medical file. And if there is incorrect information in this file, your health could be at risk.

Cooper says there are many ways to warning signs you can use to determine if you are the victim of medical identity theft:

  • Obtaining a bill or other paperwork regarding a medical procedure or service you didn't receive.
  • Discovering incorrect information in your medical records.
  • Receiving a notification that you have "maxed out" your medical benefits when you haven't.
  • Are notified by a debt collector about a medical debt you don't owe.
  • Finding collection notices or other indications of medical debt activity in your credit report.
  • Are denied insurance coverage because of inaccurate information in your medical records.

Be aware of medical identity theft so you can minimize the chance of it from affecting your short- and long-term health.

Identity theft is unstoppable, but there is plenty can do to reduce your risk of becoming a victim.

Privacy Rights Clearinghouse points out there are two types of identity theft:

  • Existing account fraud -- Also known as "account takeover fraud," this occurs if a criminal uses your credit or debit card information for fraudulent purchases.
  • New account fraud -- A thief uses your Social Security Number (SSN) or other personal information to set up new accounts in your name.

A proactive approach to identity theft is ideal because it enables you to find out if your personal information has been compromised before it's too late. Some of the best ways to prevent identity theft include:

  • Don't give out your SSN -- Providing an unknown party with your SSN or other personal information could put you at greater risk of having your identity stolen.
  • Monitor your credit and debit card statements -- Track your bills closely, and if you see possible fraudulent charges, notify your credit or debit card provider immediately.
  • Take advantage of credit reports -- Request a credit report at least once a year (you're eligible to receive one free credit report annually) to ensure credit accounts were not opened without your authorization.

Maintaining your identity is essential, and those who deploy password and SSN security measures can further minimize their risk of becoming a victim.

Password protection is key for effective identity theft management.

Passwords or personal identification numbers (PINs) allow you to access your bank account, emails and other sensitive data. And creating strong passwords helps lower the risk of identity theft.

Safeguard your accounts with passwords that feature:

  • At least eight characters.
  • Numbers, letters and symbols.
  • Both uppercase and lowercase letters.

You can always ask your bank or credit union to add extra security protection to your account. Many financial institutions require two-factor authentication in which you will be required to enter your password and answer a security question to confirm your identity.

Finding the perfect passwords requires patience, but those who create passwords that are easy to remember can protect their accounts against identity thieves. By memorizing your passwords, you won't have to write them down and risk this information falling into the wrong hands.

Know how to protect your SSN.

You only get one SSN, and once a criminal accesses it, you could be in danger. Those who know how to protect their SSN can stop criminals by preventing them from accessing this information.

The State of California Department of Justice offers the following recommendations to protect your SSN:

  • Don't keep your Social Security card in your purse or wallet; keep this card in a safe place at all times.
  • Don't respond to any emails or messages requesting your SSN.
  • If your health plan or another card uses your SSN, ask the company for a different number.
  • Do not say your SSN out loud in public settings.
  • Do not print your SSN on your driver's license or personal checks.

Getting a new SSN is rarely a good idea. It is difficult to obtain a new SSN from the Social Security Administration, and you may lose your credit history, academic records and professional degrees. And acquiring a new SSN can make it tough to rent an apartment, open a bank account or get credit.

Identity thieves are predators who prey on the unprepared. But those who understand the challenges associated with identity theft can devote the time and resources to protect their sensitive information.