Q. What is identity theft?
A. Identity theft is a broad concept that encompasses a wide variety of situations. However, every instance of identity theft involves a thief using your personal information in order to steal your money, open new accounts in your name, or obtain services. Ways they can use your personal information include:
- Opening new credit card accounts
- Using funds in your bank account
- Taking out loans for new cars and new homes
- Renting homes, property, vehicles, and more
- Obtaining medical treatment and charging it to your insurance
- Using your information when committing a crime
Q. Is credit card fraud and identity theft the same thing?
A. Although credit card fraud and identity theft seem similar, they are actually quite different.
Credit card fraud occurs when a thief obtains your account information and uses the funds to make purchases. If you report fraud on your credit card quickly, you can usually recoup the lost funds with little to no effect to your credit account or credit score. Most credit card companies and banks have policies and plans in place for limiting a card holder’s responsibility when it comes to paying for fraudulent charges.
Identity theft, on the other hand, means that the thief has obtained your personal information. By using this information, an identity thief can do much more than charge purchases to your accounts. Identity thieves can use your name, address, social security number, and medical information to open new accounts, take out loans, obtain medical treatments, and more.
Q. How do identity theft protection agencies protect my information?
A. In an attempt to keep important information protected, many people turn to an identity theft protection agency. They offer a variety of services that are geared toward protecting your information that include:
- Monitoring the internet for use of your personal information
- Keeping tabs on black market sites to ensure your information isn’t being bought and sold
- Monitoring your credit accounts for fraudulent activity
- Offering junk mail opt-out services to keep your personal information out of the garbage
- Offering timely fraud alerts
- Some identity theft protection companies offer software with their plans
No identity theft protection agency can guarantee that your identity won’t be stolen, but they can keep a close eye on your accounts so identity theft can be dealt with quickly.
Q. How do I know if I’m at risk of having my identity stolen?
A. Identity theft is on the rise, which means more people are at risk of having their identities stolen than ever before. However, your habits can greatly impact the likelihood of whether or not your identity will be stolen. Some identity theft protection companies offer a personalized identity health score, but you can also take the Identity Theft Risk Assessment Quiz from Rutgers to see just how at risk you are.
Don’t forget about the other members of your family! Believe it or not, but children are at a greater risk of identity theft than adults, so you may want to consider a plan that monitors your children’s information as well.
Q. How can you tell if your identity has been stolen?
A. Keeping your identity protected means knowing the signs that it has been compromised:
- Your credit cards get declined unexpectedly
- Strange charges begin appearing on your credit card statements
- Money goes missing from your bank account
- Your credit score takes an unexpected dive
- Personal information on your credit reports is inaccurate
The earlier you identify identity theft, the easier it is to fix, which is why so many people turn to an identity theft protection company.
Q. What is the difference between a $1 million guarantee and a $1 million insurance policy?
A. The services provided by identity theft protection agencies can vary widely, but every company has a guarantee or insurance policy. However, there are a few key differences between the two.
In general, a $1 million guarantee means that the company will spend up to $1 million dollars to reestablish your identity to pre-theft levels. That may mean that they are willing to pay attorneys and fees, but they may not be willing to provide you with cash.
A $1 million insurance policy means that the company will spend up to $1 million to reestablish your identity, but they are also likely to provide you with emergency funds and lost wages.
Although these are general guidelines, the details of each policy differ greatly depending on the company. Some companies with guarantees may be willing to cover lost wages, while some companies with insurance policies may not be able to provide you with emergency cash. It’s important to understand the guarantees and policies of the companies you are considering before choosing a plan.
Q. What do identity thieves do with my information?
A. Identity thieves can get pretty creative when it comes to using your information. In addition to well-known issues, like draining your bank account and opening new accounts, there are many other ways an identity thief can ruin your good name. They can:
- Sell your information on the black market
- Charge their utilities in your name
- Obtain a cell phone
- Apply for a job
- Obtain student financial aid
- File fraudulent tax returns
- Obtain medical care
- Commit a crime
The possibilities really are endless, which is why it is so important to keep an eye on your personal information and credit accounts.
Q. Who is at risk of having their identity stolen?
A. Although anyone can have their identity stolen, there are a few groups of people that are more at risk:
- Social media users – Unfortunately, sharing all that personal information about you and your family on social media can make you an easy target for identity thieves.
- Using credit cards – Every time you use a plastic card, you are putting your information at risk. If the businesses you frequent experience a data breach, your personal information could be in jeopardy.
- Children – Youngsters receive a social security number at birth, but this number isn’t likely to be monitored until much later in life, giving an identity thief plenty of time to ruin your child’s identity and credit.
- Wealthy people – Not only do wealthy people have more money to steal, they also tend to have multiple accounts, making it more difficult for them to monitor their personal information.
Even accessing personal accounts on your cell phone can put you at risk of having your identity stolen! The bottom line is that no one is immune from identity theft.
Q. Who is the typical identity thief?
A. When you think of the typical identity thief, you’re probably thinking about someone living across the country or halfway around the world. Although thieves can be complete strangers, they are actually more likely to be someone you know.
Many identity thieves turn out to be neighbors, friends, colleagues, household employees, and even brothers, sisters, cousins, and children. Passing acquaintances, like school employees, credit card companies, restaurant employees, and retail stores can steal your information. Anyone who has access to your personal information can become a potential identity thief.
Q. How do I monitor my credit accounts?
A. One of the best ways to monitor your personal information is to keep tabs on your credit accounts. However, there are three separate credit bureaus that you need to monitor regularly. Many of the best identity theft protection companies do this for you, but you can also check your credit reports on your own:
Everyone is entitled to a free credit report from each bureau once a year. To obtain your annual credit reports for free, visit annualcreditreport.com.
Q. Can I recover money that was stolen from my accounts?
A. You can recover money that was stolen from your accounts. However, most identity theft protection agencies will not replace the stolen funds in your account. That’s because you are not legally responsible for paying fraudulent debts as a result of identity theft.
Most credit card companies and banks have policies in place to restore funds to your account. The quicker you can identify fraud, the more likely you will be to recover those funds. An identity theft protection company can help you talk to creditors to ensure that those funds get returned to your account.
Q. Is it a good idea to get a new social security number if my identity was stolen?
A. Replacing your social security number may seem like the easiest route to regaining your identity, but it’s not usually the best option.
You’ll have to keep track of two sets of personal information that are associated with each number. In addition, changing your social security number can set off some red flags. Changing social security numbers is associated with imposters, not victims, so a future employer or creditor may be hesitant to work with you.