ID Theft

What is identity theft?

Written by a NortonLifeLock employee


Identity theft occurs when someone uses your personal information to pretend to be you to commit fraud or to gain financial benefits.

Your personal information could be your full name, email address, online login and passwords, Social Security number, driver’s license number, passport number or bank number. Criminals can gain access to these types of information and sell it on the dark web to commit identity theft.

How does identity theft happen?

Criminals may have a lot of ways to access to your personal information. Here are some common ways criminals commit identity theft.

Phishing: Criminals send fake emails or texts that may look legitimate. The links in these mails or texts contain malicious software that can download malware and spyware. The software may be able to mine your computer for personal information and send it to a remote computer. The criminal uses this information to commit identity theft or sell it on the dark web. It’s a good idea to never open suspicious-looking mails.

Skimming: Credit card or ATM card skimming happens when criminals replace card readers with a counterfeit device at cash counters or other point of sale systems like at grocery stores, coffee shops, gas stations or ATMs. This device captures data contained in the magnetic strip of credit cards and debit cards and passes it to the skimmer. Sometimes, a small camera captures entries like ZIP codes and ATM PINs. With information like credit card or debit card numbers, names, ZIP codes, or ATM PINs, criminals could be able to make fraudulent purchases or withdraw cash in the name of the account holder.

Unsecure web connections: Some public Wi-Fi connections are unencrypted. This could give criminals a chance to snoop on data going in to and coming out of your device. If there are software vulnerabilities on your device, criminals could inject malware to help them gain access to your data. In some cases, criminals create fake Wi-Fi hotspots with names that sound like a legitimate network. There is a chance that identity thieves are viewing and exploiting all information passing through this rogue network. Always check the spelling of the network name before connecting. And take extra precautions like using a VPN to connect to public Wi-Fi, especially if you are accessing your bank account or filing your tax return.

Dumpster diving: Identity thieves may steal mail and patch information together to steal your identity. They could get important details like bank account numbers, health insurance cards, or credit card details by stealing mail. They might be able to create a new identity if they have key information like your Social Security number. It’s smart to shred mail before discarding it. Also properly shred pre-approved credit cards, tax-related documents that you don't need, documents that contain credit card numbers, or any communication from financial institutions.

Phone scams: Phone calls from people claiming to be from a bank or the IRS asking for money are becoming more common. If you receive this kind of call, do not give away any information over the phone. Hang up immediately. Banks and the IRS communicate through the mail. If you are not sure about a phone call, look up the caller’s phone number and call them.

Data breaches: Data breaches can put your personal information at risk of being traded on the dark web. The Equifax data breach exposed the personal information of as many as 147.9 million people. You can take measures to help protect against identity theft, which might include considering an identity theft protection service.

5 things you need to know about identity theft

Knowing how identity theft happens can help you better understand which information you need to protect and how you can avoid becoming a victim.

Possible signs of identity theft

  1. Your financial statements have discrepancies, or your bank statement shows withdrawals that you didn’t make.
  2. You get calls from credit and debit collectors about charges you didn’t make.
  3. The IRS sends you a letter informing you that more than one tax return was filed in your name.
  4. There are unfamiliar charges on your credit card statement.
  5. You receive medical bills for services you didn’t receive.

Why do you need identity theft protection?

According to the FTC, identity theft is one of the top consumer complaints.1 In recent years, data breaches have compromised personal information of millions of people. That means Social Security numbers, birthdates, addresses or credit card information could be for sale on the dark web.

Even if you take the utmost precautions, your personal data could be exposed in a data breach. ID theft is not just limited to your financial information. Criminals could go after your medical information to commit medical identity theft and use your insurance information to get medical services.

Children could become victims of child identity theft. Criminals could steal a child's personal data and sell it on the dark web.

Keep checking your credit report to make sure everything is correct. You can do so by contacting any of the three major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.

Having identity theft protection service like LifeLock may help protect you from identity theft. It uses innovative monitoring technology and alerting tools to help proactively safeguard your credit and finances. If identity theft does occur, a U.S.-based Identity Restoration Specialist, dedicated to you, will personally manage your case.

Disclaimers and references:

No one can prevent all identity theft.
LifeLock does not monitor all transactions at all businesses.
1 FTC, “Consumer sentinel network data book 2017: visual snapshot,” 2017.

Editorial note: Our articles provide educational information for you. Norton LifeLock 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.

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