In identity theft, hackers and criminals use personal information such as victims' Social Security numbers, addresses, and birthdates to take out loans in their names, steal their income tax refunds, or access their bank or credit card accounts.
This brings serious financial pain to victims who must, after discovering that their identities have been stolen, close their accounts and contact lenders to make sure they don't have to pay for the damage identity thieves have caused.
Identity theft is only becoming a bigger problem, too. The Federal Trade Commission reported that in 2020, it received nearly 1.4 million reports of identity theft through its IdentityTheft.gov website. That is about twice as many reports as the government agency received in 2019.
10 New Year’s resolutions to help protect against identity theft
There is good news, though. You can reduce the odds that you'll be a target of identity theft. It just requires taking caution and looking for signs of trouble.
Here are 10 New Year's resolutions you can make today to turn yourself into a more challenging target for identity thieves in 2022.
1. Don’t overshare on social media
It can be tempting to fill Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter with tales of your latest vacation, family photos, and news of your recent promotion at work. Be careful, though: The more personal information you share on social media, the easier it is for cybercriminals to steal your identity.
You might mention the city in which you live or the name of your employer. This gives cybercriminals the chance to start piecing together important personal information about you, information that they can use to gradually steal your identity.
It’s OK to use social media. Just don’t post specific information about your location, employer, or your full date of birth. And never show photos of your driver’s license or passport.
2. Regularly check your online bank and credit card accounts
When cybercriminals steal your identity, they sometimes use the information to break into your online bank and credit card accounts. It’s important, then, to regularly check these accounts for suspicious purchases.
See a charge you don’t recognize or a transfer you didn’t authorize? That could be a sign that a scammer has accessed your accounts. If you notice something suspicious, call your bank or credit card provider immediately.
If you act quickly, you can close your accounts and receive new log-in credentials before any more damage is done. If you wait more than 60 days to report the fraud, you might get stuck paying for any illegal charges made on your credit card.
3. Order your credit reports
Your three credit reports — one each maintained by the national credit bureaus of Experian, Equifax and TransUnion — contain important financial information, including a list of your credit card accounts and loans. You can order free copies of these reports from AnnualCreditReport.com.
When you do, check them for any loans or credit card accounts you don’t remember opening. If you see any, that’s another sign that a criminal has stolen your identity. Contact the bureaus about the fraudulent accounts and contact the lenders and credit card providers behind these illegal accounts.
Phishing attempts, in which a scammer tries to trick you into giving up personal information, are one of the most common ways to fall victim to identity theft.
In a phishing attempt, you’ll usually receive an email message or text that looks like it has been sent by a bank, streaming service, credit card provider or other organization. The message might state that you need to click on a link to avoid having your account closed or to verify a recent purchase.
If you click on the link, you’ll be taken to another web page that asks you to provide personal information such as your Social Security number, account numbers, or birthdate. Once criminals get this information, they can use it to break into your online accounts or steal your identity.
Never provide sensitive personal information by text or email. Your bank or credit card provider will never ask for this information by email or text. If you receive such a message, delete it immediately. If you’re still nervous, you can contact the customer-information number at your service provider to see if there really is a problem you need to respond to.
5. Password-protect your devices
What happens if you lose your phone or laptop? A scammer could open your devices and find any personal or financial information you have stored on them. That’s why it’s important to password-protect these devices. If your laptop or smartphone is protected by a password, it’s less likely that whoever finds your lost devices will be open to unlock them.
6. Freeze your credit
Whenever you apply for a new loan or credit card, the financial institutions offering these products will check your credit. If you don’t plan on applying for loans or credit cards in the near future, you can put a freeze on your credit reports with the national credit bureaus of Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion.
When your reports are frozen, lenders or other financial institutions can’t check these reports. Because of this, they won’t approve any requests made in your name for new credit cards or loans. If an identity thief, then, applies for a new credit card or loan in your name, the request will be rejected.
You can request a freeze from Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. You’ll have to freeze your credit at all three bureaus. Before you can apply for new loans or credit cards, you’ll have to temporarily unfreeze your credit at each of the bureaus.
7. Take some low-tech measures to protect yourself
Collect your mail every day. And if you go on vacation, put a hold on your mail. Scammers can use the information from credit card statements, bank account statements and even promotional offers to get the information they need to steal your identity.
8. Get an IP PIN
Criminals might steal your identity so that they can file an income tax return in your name. The goal is to steal your tax refund.
You can help prevent this by applying for an Identity Protection Personal Identification Number, better known as an IP PIN. These are unique six-digit numbers that you can use when you file your income tax returns.
If you have an IP PIN, criminals must also know this number if they want to file a fraudulent return in your name. This extra piece of identification makes it more difficult for fraudsters to file a false return in your name. To get an IP PIN, log onto the Get an IP PIN tool offered by the IRS.
9. Enable two-factor authentication:
Two-factor authentication is one of the easiest ways to make it more difficult for others to access your most important online accounts.
When you sign into your online bank account or credit card portal, you’ll need to first log-in as normal with your username and password. But you’ll then receive a code —often six digits — sent to your phone. Before you can finish logging into your account, you’ll need to enter this code.
This extra step might seem like a hassle, but it makes it much more difficult for thieves to break into your online accounts.
10. Work on your passwords
This is old advice, but it remains important: Use passwords that are difficult to guess and don’t use the same ones at multiple sites. The best passwords include a combination of at least 12 letters, numbers, and symbols. The more complex you make your passwords, the more difficult it will be for hackers to crack them.
Cyber threats have evolved, and so have we.
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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.
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