Myths and facts about identity theft


Knowing how identity theft really works can help protect you from this crime.

Think you know how to protect yourself against identity theft? You might be surprised. Yes, the internet is filled with information about this crime and suggestions on how to avoid it. But you might find that a lot of identity theft information on the web is outdated, incomplete, or wrong.

Identity thieves are constantly tweaking the methods they use to steal people’s personal and financial information. Protecting yourself, then, requires you to stay abreast of the new tactics that thieves may be using.

To help you along, we’ll debunk several of the most common myths associated with identity theft. Knowing how identity theft really works can help protect you against this crime.

3 identity theft statistics

How serious of a crime is identity theft? Here are three statistics to illustrate just how dangerous, and prevalent, this crime has become.

1. Identity theft exposes the information of millions

The Identity Theft Resource Center, in its 2018 End-of-Year Data Breach Report, said that consumer financial information was exposed at a record pace in 2018. The report said that more than 446 million consumer records containing personal information were exposed in data breaches in 2018. That’s an increase of 126 percent from the number of records exposed in 2017.

2. Identity theft affects millions of people

Nearly 60 million Americans have been affected by identity theft. That’s based on an online survey of 5,000 U.S. adults conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of NortonLifeLock (January 2019). A 2018 telephone survey conducted by The Harris Poll for the American Institute of CPAs found that 60 percent of U.S. adults reported that they or an immediate family member have been the victim of a scheme to defraud them. These schemes include email phishing scams, scammers obtaining tax refunds in victims’ names and criminals opening a new line of credit in a victim’s name.

3. Identity theft costs victims billions of dollars

Over 13 million Americans were affected by identity theft in 2018, according to the January 2019 The Harris Poll conducted for NortonLifeLock. And what was the financial impact that year? Nearly $14.5 billion were stolen from identity theft victims in 2018, according to the same poll.

Myths and facts about identity theft

With identity theft affecting millions of people, it’s important to understand how identity thieves work, what tactics they can use to obtain your personal information, and what steps you can take to protect yourself.

To help, here are some of the more common myths regarding identity theft.

Myth 1: If you are careful enough, you’ll never fall victim to identity theft.

Fact: No one can prevent all identity theft, and cybercriminals are getting more sophisticated in their attempts to steal your personal information.

While taking precautions to protect your personal information may help protect you from becoming a victim of identity theft, there are no guarantees and no ways to completely protect your information from being exposed.

That’s because criminals have consistently evolved their methods for uncovering your personal information, including your Social Security number, driver’s license details, bank account numbers, computer and account passwords, credit card numbers, and more. Cybercriminals can infect your devices with malware and viruses that can hide on your computer, track your keystrokes and infiltrate your programs. They can also launch cyberattacks on companies and organizations to mine consumer data from vulnerable servers and computers.

Consider the 2018 breach of Marriott and other large hotel brands that exposed the personal information of up to 500 million guests. The exposed data included some combination of full names, email addresses, passport numbers, phone numbers, and some encrypted credit card numbers and expiration dates.

Myth 2: Freezing my credit will keep my personal information safe.

Fact: Freezing your credit may prevent identity thieves from opening new credit card or other accounts in your name, but it can’t protect you from other more common types of identity theft.

Even if you freeze your credit, if identity thieves already have just a few items of personal information — including your name, Social Security number, and birthdate — they can use it to file a tax return in your name and or commit other types of fraud, like Social Security or employment fraud. They can even use your information to commit medical identity theft. Criminals don’t need your credit report to file insurance claims to obtain medical care or prescriptions; they only need some of your personal details.

Freezing your credit won’t prevent thieves from accessing your current credit card and bank accounts, either. If thieves gain access to these accounts, they may be able to make fraudulent purchases through them or steal cash.

Myth 3: All banks and credit card companies protect you with zero-liability policies.

Fact: Some financial institutions will reimburse you for fraudulent charges on your credit card, but may not do the same if thieves make such charges using your debit card.

It’s always better to know the details of your financial institution’s zero-liability policies. Some institutions limit how much you can be reimbursed without first requiring an investigation. Review your bank and credit card accounts regularly for fraudulent activities, looking for unfamiliar or suspicious purchases you don’t remember making. Review the liability policies of your financial institutions, too, so that you know what to expect should you discover fraudulent activity.

Myth 4: I have the best security suite installed on all my devices, so my information is safe.

Fact: Identity theft isn’t only an online crime. It can happen offline, too.

Install and use a robust security software, like Norton™ 360 with LifeLock™, to protect your connected devices, online privacy, and identity. You’ll get protection from viruses, ransomware, malware, and other online threats.

Don’t forget, though, to take the steps necessary to protect your offline identity, too. Stealing Social Security cards or driver’s licenses, skimming debit/credit cards, and dumpster diving are just a few of the many ways that thieves steal identity information offline.

Myth 5: Shredding documents will keep my information safe.

Fact: Identity theft can happen before you shred documents.

While shredding documents that contain personal information is a smart move, sometimes identity theft is committed by family members, friends, roommates, and others who have access to your documents before you shred them. To protect yourself, it’s best to place your mail on hold with your local post office while you are out of town. While at home, keep your mail out of sight and lock up important documents. If you think your mail is at risk of being stolen, invest in a secure mailbox.

Myth 6: Identity theft affects only adults.

Fact: Children can also be victims of identity theft.

It is unlikely that a child has an active credit history, which means their clean credit file may be a gold mine for identity thieves. Criminals could open new credit card accounts, get a loan, or apply for a job using a stolen Social Security number. It may take a long time for a child to realize they have been a victim of identity theft. They might not learn this until they are old enough to apply for a credit card or loan or try to rent an apartment. Only then do they learn someone has been misusing their identity for years.

Myth 7: Cybercriminals won’t target senior citizens because seniors are too old.

Fact: Identity thieves may target seniors.

Sometimes senior citizens are socially isolated or lonely. This could make them vulnerable to identity thieves. Would-be scammers might befriend lonely seniors and ask them for personal information that could be used to steal their identities. Or identity thieves could send fake letters or emails that appear to come from trusted sources — such as the senior’s bank, charitable organizations, or well-known companies — asking them to “verify” account numbers or to make donations by providing credit card information.

According to a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) report to Congress, “When older consumers — especially those 80 and over — reported losing money to fraud, they lost much more money than consumers in their twenties.”

Criminals may also target a senior citizen’s mail for bank and credit card statements, checks, tax information, and more.

Myth 8: If I fall victim to identity theft, I’m on my own.

Fact: There are several government agencies and nonprofit organizations that can help should you become a victim of identity theft.

Your first step should be to report the crime to the FTC at 1-877-438-4338 or online at The commission will send you an identity theft report and a recovery plan. You’ll also be able to create an account on the website to help you track your efforts in rebuilding your credit. You should also contact your local law enforcement, and file a police report.

You should also contact the three national credit bureaus, ExperianEquifax and TransUnion, to place fraud alerts or freezes on your credit reports. Reach out, too, to your bank, credit card issuers, and other financial institutions where you have accounts.

Finally, identity theft protection services such Norton™ 360 with LifeLock™, can help you take the steps to help protect against identity theft in the future.

Identity theft can happen to anyone, no matter how careful you are. But taking the right steps to help protect your identity and devices — avoiding phishing emails, not giving out personal information over the phone, shredding documents, and installing strong security software on your connected devices — can all help lower your odds of becoming a victim.

Dan Rafter
  • Dan Rafter
  • Freelance writer
Dan Rafter is a freelance writer who covers tech, finance, and real estate. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Fox Business.

Editorial note: Our articles provide educational information for you. Our offerings may not cover or protect against every type of crime, fraud, or threat we write about. Our goal is to increase awareness about Cyber Safety. Please review complete Terms during enrollment or setup. Remember that no one can prevent all identity theft or cybercrime, and that LifeLock does not monitor all transactions at all businesses. The Norton and LifeLock brands are part of Gen Digital Inc. 


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