14.4 million people, or 1 in every 15 people in the United States, has had their identity stolen, according to the 2019 Identity Fraud Study from Javelin Strategy & Research. The consequences of these crimes are staggering, with more than $14.7 billion lost due to identity theft. Even more startling is that another survey has found that one-third of adults in the United States have experienced identity theft. With online identity theft rapidly increasing, it is easier than ever for criminals to access your personal information and wreak havoc on your life.
To avoid becoming part of this grim statistic, it is important that you recognize online identity theft and how to stop it.
What Is Online Identity Theft?
Identity theft has existed for many years. However, traditional identity theft worked by stealing something physical from the victim, such as their checkbook, social security card, or credit card. Criminals would steal mail out of the mailbox, rifle through trash, or take things from a purse or wallet left behind.
Soon, this evolved into using skimmer machines and similar devices that took identifying information from cards that were swiped or inserted into store terminals or ATMs. Identity theft can result in significant consequences, including irreparable harm to your credit, rejections for credit, legal attempts to collect debts you did not incur, and lost job opportunities.
Now, criminals can steal your information without being near you, sometimes not even in the same country. Criminals often entice victims to click on a link or respond to an offer. They may request the victim to input information or download a virus to their computer that steals their personal information. Others may purchase stolen information coming from data breaches and use it to commit identity theft.
How Does Online Identity Theft Occur?
The typical identity theft scheme works like this:
1. The Criminal Entices You with an Offer
You may receive an email about a sale, notice a pop-up ad, or complete a form before you download content. Once you open an email attachment, click on the pop-up, or visit the website, it is on to the next step.
2. They Download Malware on Your Device
The criminal may download spyware or other types of malware onto your device. Once this occurs, the criminal can track your actions and keystrokes. Your internet browsing habits are recorded. The spyware delivers your personal information like your social security number, credit card number, online banking account login details, and other sensitive data to criminals.
3. They Steal Your Information
Once the criminal has your information they use it to:
- Steal money from your accounts
- Make purchases with your accounts
- Open new credit card accounts
- Take over your existing accounts
- Sell your information to others
All of this can happen simply because you are connected to a network.
Steps to Take to Fully Secure Yourself from Online Identity Theft
Fortunately, there are several methods that you can use to fully secure yourself from online identity theft. Here are the top strategies to keep your identity safe online:
Install Strong Security Software
Install strong security software to all your devices. This is your first line of defense against malware, ransomware, and other nefarious software that criminals may try to use to infiltrate your system. A solid anti-spyware program will search everywhere on your pc where spyware could hide and remove it. Go with a trusted product that is known for keeping up with the latest strains of spyware.
Set Up Automatic Updates
Set your security software to update automatically so that criminals do not find a way into your network due to an uninstalled security patch.
Browse in Private Mode
Browsing in incognito or private mode can help you keep your browsing history, cookies, and temporary internet files private.
Use an Anonymous Search Engine
While Google is certainly the most popular search engine, it is not necessarily the safest. So much of your search history, behavior, and previous actions are recorded through this search engine. Others are available that will allow you to anonymously search the internet without tracking everything you do. These also do not collect or share your history or clicks with third parties. You can also avoid ad trackers by using an anonymous search engine.
Use a VPN
Avoid using public computers altogether and go one step forward by using a virtual private network (VPN). This is a private network that makes your IP address so that others with access to a public internet connection cannot trace your online actions. Use this option any time that you are in a public space, such as a library or coffee shop.
Use Strong Passwords
Make it harder for criminals to access your private data by using strong passwords that meet the following requirements:
- Long, at least 10 characters
- Contain uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols
- Avoids anything attached to you or regular words like the name of your child or pet
- Not used on other sites
Two-factor authentication and passwords that use your retina or fingerprint provide additional layers of security.
Be Careful When Shopping
Shopping sites are a treasure trove for criminals because they contain your personal information, as well as information from your credit card. Avoid any website that looks suspect when making a purchase. Check reviews for the business or see if their name pops up in relation to scams. Make sure the site uses https at the beginning of its URL, which is a more secure variant and validates a website’s safety and privacy.
Be Careful When Checking Email
Phishing emails are one of the most common ways that criminals commit online identity theft. Avoid opening any emails from an unknown sender. Do not click on a link or download a file unless you are 100% sure it came from someone you know and trust. Even if the communication seems legitimate, avoid clicking on the links in the email and use the site where you regularly go to log into your service.
Do Not Reveal Personal Information on Social Media
Avoid listing personal information about yourself on your social media accounts, such as your phone number, address, or date of birth. Use the tightest security settings to thwart online criminals from accessing your accounts or other private data.
Monitor Your Credit
By checking frequently on your credit score and report, you can more quickly realize if your information has been stolen. Here are some effective ways to monitor your credit.
- Order your free credit report. You can get one free report from each of the three credit bureaus each year.
- Review your credit report for inaccuracies, such as incorrect addresses, the wrong spelling of your name, or other mistakes.
- Review your credit report for any signs someone may be using your credit, such as new accounts being opened, new inquiries on your report from institutions with whom you do not do business, new employers, or new charges on your existing accounts.
- Watch out for account takeover or the inability to access your account online.
- Keep on the lookout for other signs of identity theft, such as calls from creditors about unpaid bills, receiving a letter about denied credit, or receiving cards for new accounts you never opened. You may also notice that you are missing bills in the mail.
Consistently applying these methods can help you defend and monitor your credit while also reducing the risks of online identity theft.