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Home » How to Recognize the Signs of Identity Theft—And What to Do About It

How to Recognize the Signs of Identity Theft—And What to Do About It

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Protect yourself against identity theft.

Benjamin Franklin is credited with writing, “in this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes.” It’s been 234 years since he wrote that, and it still rings true. But for our modern world, it’s prudent to add the certainty of data vulnerability and identity theft.

According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), there were over 1.1 million reports of identity theft received through website and likely countless more that went unreported. Identity theft (which is tracked separately from identity fraud) is the act of stealing someone’s personal information. Identity fraud is the use of an individual’s personal information to commit crimes. In most cases, a thief may steal your name, address, credit card number, bank account number, Social Security number, or medical insurance information, but biometric ID theft is also becoming increasingly common. With your personal information, thieves can make purchases, open new credit cards or utility accounts in your name, steal your tax refund, get medical care, or pretend to be you if they are arrested.

Here are some signs that your personal information may have been compromised:

  •  Unexpected withdrawals. If there have been withdrawals or transfers from your savings, checking, or other financial accounts that you can’t remember, it’s worth checking into the origin of those transactions—even if it is a small amount.
  • Missing bills or mail. If you haven’t seen a particular bill for a few months or feel some of your mail is missing, look into it. A thief could be stealing your mail or may have changed the mailing address on the account to keep you from seeing fraudulent charges. To minimize the risk of this, opt for paperless bills and switch to a secure, locked mailbox.
  • Overdue utility bills. If you are getting calls or emails about overdue utility bills (cable, electricity, water, gas, etc.) it could be a sign of utility fraud, which means someone opened an account in your name using your personal information. Little information is needed to open most utility accounts (sometimes just a name and phone number), so utility fraud is prevalent—and it isn’t often caught before the account goes to collections.
  • Denial of applications for a credit card or applications for credit. If you are denied a credit card but believe you have good credit and haven’t reached your credit limit, ask about the reason for the denial. An identity thief may be building debt on your behalf or damaging your credit history with unpaid bills.
  • Sudden or dramatic changes in your credit score. Many factors will affect your credit score including the number of accounts you have, your payment history, your credit utilization, the age of your accounts, the kind of accounts you have, and the number of inquiries made to your credit. Every credit inquiry could take 5-20 points off your score depending on how many accounts you have and the length of your credit history.
  • Hard inquiries on your credit report. When you check your credit report, keep an eye out for how many hard inquiries you have received. If you see unfamiliar hard inquiries, it’s an indication that someone else is applying for credit under your name.
  • Calls from retailers and debt collectors. If you have gotten calls from debt collectors or retailers that you are not familiar with, it could just be a mistake. It could also be a sign that someone has opened an account in your name that you may ultimately be held responsible for.
  • Unexpected medical bills. If doctors or other medical service providers are sending you bills for services you didn’t receive, it could be a sign of medical identity theft–when someone uses your personal information to see a doctor, get prescription drugs, buy medical devices, submit claims, or get other medical care. If not addressed, it could affect your ability to get health insurance benefits and it could damage your credit.
  • Rejected health care benefits. If your health care plan starts rejecting medical claims that should have been covered, investigate the reasons why. If their records show that you have reached your limits and you know you haven’t, someone else may be accessing care under your name.
  • Denial of medical coverage. If your health care plan refuses to cover you because their records show you have a pre-existing condition that you do not have, someone may have used your name or health insurance information to get care at some point.
  • Multiple IRS records. If the Internal Revenue Service notifies you that more than one tax return was filed in your name or indicates that you have income from an employer you have never worked for, investigate the records for fraud.
  • You stop receiving unemployment benefits. If you suddenly stop receiving unemployment benefits without notification, it could be a sign of “Claim Hijacking” or “Claim/Account Takeover”. This is when criminals use stolen personal information to log into a person’s unemployment account and steal the unemployment benefit payments intended for the real claimant.
  • Unexpectedly high state taxes. If you get a surprise state-issued 1099-G or your state department of revenue contacts you to tell you that you owe significantly more state taxes than expected, it may be because an identity thief filed to collect state unemployment benefits in your name. Those state unemployment benefits are taxable.

What to Do If You Suspect Identity Theft

If your identity is stolen, report it immediately to the appropriate law enforcement authorities. The next important step is to inform your financial institutions so they can be on the lookout for additional indicators of theft or fraud. Let your creditors and existing lenders know that there has been fraudulent activity in your name. Alert your health insurer and medical provider of the breach and get copies of your medical records to check for suspicious activity. If tax-related fraud is involved, notify the IRS.

​It’s also a good idea to report it on the FTC’s website and—if you’re a victim of cybercrime—to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.

What to Do to Prevent Identity Theft

  • Be vigilant online. Whether you are on your phone, laptop, or desktop computer, be vigilant about protecting your privacy and identity.
  • Use strong passwords. Create intricate passwords, change them periodically, and employ two-factor authentication whenever possible. Don’t rely on security questions as they can easily be hacked by scammers. Read your bank statements and monitor your credit report for changes.
  • Treat your social security number like precious cargo. Your social security number is the master key to most of your accounts and personal data. Shred any documents that carry your social security number and avoid carrying your social security card with you. If you are asked to give your social security number over the phone, be sure you know who you are speaking to and how they will use it.
  • Be alert to scammers. Do not give any personal information to anyone over text, phone, or email unless you initiate the call—and even then, use caution. Do not click on any links or download any apps in a message or email. Do not provide any one-time passcodes to a caller or texter unless you initiate the exchange. Maps (and any other legitimate financial institution) will NEVER contact you directly to verify information like this. If you receive a call or message like this, do not engage with the caller or sender. Contact Maps directly at 503.588.0181 and report the activity.
  • Set up alerts. Most financial institutions (including Maps) and credit card companies will allow you to set up alerts that will notify you about activities such as transfers, withdrawals, and deposits.
  • Read your statements. Read your financial statements and make sure you recognize every transaction. Even small withdrawals or deposits can be a sign of fraudulent activity.
  • Shred the evidence. If you are tossing mail, bills, and other documents in the trash, you are opening yourself up to tremendous risk. Anything that has a signature, account number, or social security number should be shredded—as well as anything that contains medical or legal information.
  • Check your credit report. You can request a free copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) once a year at Outside of that, you are also entitled to see your credit report within 60 days of being denied credit, if you suspect your report is inaccurate, or for a few other reasons. You can always check your report for free with Credit Karma but be aware that their information reflects what’s cataloged by Equifax and TransUnion—and it is only updated every 7 days. Depending on what’s happening, your credit score on that site may be off by as much as 20 to 25 points. It’s a good resource for frequent checking, but if you see something suspicious, get an official report.
  • Freeze your credit. If you are concerned (or see suspicious activity), consider freezing your credit. Freezing your credit with all three major credit bureaus will restrict access so that new credit files can’t be opened. It’s free to freeze your credit (and unfreeze when you want to open an account), and it provides the best protection against fraudulent accounts being opened.
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