Don’t ignore warning signs of identity theft

Time-bombEach day, we hear new stories of large-scale data breaches that affect several thousand and sometimes many millions of people.

In addition to the risks of having had one’s private information compromised, there’s another risk facing many of us: developing a “So what?” attitude.

Since ID theft is so commonplace, many people may assume that corporations, healthcare, and financial institutions will take care of the problem. Translation: “I don’t have to worry about it.”

The reality is, you do. There isn’t a major corporation, government agency, healthcare company, or other large business that isn’t working hard to make their records more secure. However, in many cases, security is still largely a case of “whack-a-mole.” By the time holes in security are identified and plugged, new vulnerabilities have been found.

Moreover, by the time most data breaches are discovered, the bad guys have been in the computers for many months, or even a few years. That means that when a breach is announced, and if your information was compromised, your Social Security number, date of birth, address, employer’s name, and other personal information already could have been used by criminals.

Lurking in the shadows

Danger still exists even if you haven’t seen any evidence that you have been victimized. In the case of the recent IRS breach, for example, in which more than 100,000 taxpayers’ information was stolen, the data thieves broke into the IRS system via a feature called “Get Transcript.” They requested copies of previous tax documents, and then proceeded to file for more than $39 million in fraudulent refunds.

How did they get in? By using previously stolen identification.

Too little, too late

You’ve undoubtedly read that companies, government agencies, or other institutions usually pay for credit or identification monitoring for people who’ve been identified as victims of data breaches. However, for any one of us, that service could be similar to locking the barn after the horse is stolen.

Moreover, because so much attention is now focused on large-scale data breaches, we can easily lose sight of the fact that identity theft often occurs one victim at a time; it can happen when we take out money from an ATM or use a credit card in a restaurant.

We all need to be vigilant

Thieves don’t necessarily use stolen identity right away. So if someone has your ID, financial difficulties are always just around the corner. The sooner you spot and address any potential issues, the less likely you are to face costly and time-consuming problems down the road. Here are some key warning signs that you always need to follow up on immediately:

  • Missing or lost credit cards
  • Any transaction you don’t recognize on a bank or credit card statement
  • Questionable information on your credit report
  • Bills you don’t expect in the mail
  • Any credit denials you receive, especially if your credit is good

The IRS offers an excellent and comprehensive guide on identity theft and how to protect yourself. Also, be sure to check ways to keep your personal information out of the hands of people who commit fraud by e-mail; see our tips on how not to be victimized by fraudulent e-mails.

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