Identity theft is a large and growing form of criminal activity, affecting millions of Americans each year. If you’re one of them, recognizing the problem at the earliest possible stage is key to minimizing the disruption it can cause in your life. Here are a handful of telltale signs you should be aware of.
1. Your Mail Stops Coming …
This one might not be immediately obvious, but it’s definitely a red flag. If your usual bills, statements and subscriptions aren’t showing up in your physical mailbox or inbox, it’s possibly because your identity has been stolen.
Scammers who’ve taken control of your accounts often will change the address of record, so statements go to them instead. That way, you won’t notice if there are (large!) charges or withdrawals you haven’t made. Sometimes it goes the other direction, too: scammers fill out an unauthorized change of address form with the USPS in your name, and have your bills and statements sent to them. Those contain more than enough information for them to steal your identity and misuse your credit.
2. … or You Get Mail You Shouldn’t
The flip side of the no-mail scenario is that your mail will include things it shouldn’t. These might include bills for services you haven’t used, statements from accounts you haven’t opened, or “thank you for your recent purchase” confirmations from vendors you haven’t bought from.
Any of these, especially if several come at the same time, are a strong indication that your identity has been stolen.
3. You Get Surprise Collection Calls
Life is busy and uncertain, and even the most organized of us have gotten occasional reminders of an overdue account. However, if you’re suddenly getting collection calls for accounts you’ve never opened, that can be a warning that your identity has been stolen. Using your name and credit rating to take out loans, credit cards or lines of credit is a common way scammers profit from your stolen identity.
This isn’t the only possible explanation, of course: scam “agencies” have sometimes tried to collect bogus debts, and there have been honest cases of mistaken identity. Either way, if this happens you’ll need to take immediate action.
4. Your Credit Score Varies Unexpectedly
A solid credit score is the key to many things, from setting up a cell phone to getting a line of credit to fix up your house. All of those things, and many more, become more challenging if your credit score fluctuates frequently. If you’re living life as usual but your credit score is changing, that’s a sign your identity may have been stolen.
You’re entitled to a free credit report each year from each of the three big reporting agencies, so request one at the first sign of trouble. If there are bogus charges, new accounts, or even a spate of applications that were not your doing, you’re a victim of identity theft and need to move quickly to straighten things out. Filing a report at USA.gov’s Identity Theft page is a good starting point.
5. Claims and Credit Applications Are Refused
On a related note, you may find that you’re turned down when you shouldn’t be. Sometimes that comes when you’re applying for a new credit card or loan, or going through a financial background check. Perhaps you might be submitting a claim to your insurer, only to be told that you’ve already maxed out your benefit for the claims period. Either way, that’s a very large, very red flag.
Request a statement immediately from your bank or insurer, or pull your credit report if it was a random credit application that was refused. Scrutinize them for bogus charges, and begin the dispute resolution process.
6. Your Taxes Are Messed Up
One way scammers will often misuse your identity is to get between you and the IRS. This can happen in a number of different ways: you might discover after you’ve filed that someone has already claimed your child as a dependent, or that someone has already filed in your name and claimed your refund. The IRS also may accuse you of unreported income, from a company you don’t work for.
All of those are clear signs of identity theft, and should be reported immediately to the IRS.
7. You’re Shut Out of Your Online Accounts
One of the most obvious and aggravating signs of identity theft occurs when the scammer assumes your online identity, changes the passwords, and locks you out of your own accounts. This can happen not just with financially related accounts, like your banking or credit card sites, but with your email and social media accounts as well.
This doesn’t just give scammers access to your information and credit, it also leaves your friends and family members vulnerable to malicious attacks: it’s your legitimate account, after all, so why would they be suspicious of a link you’ve sent?
Fixing this type of attack can be complicated and take a long time, because the scammer is now — as far as these companies are concerned — the legitimate account holder, and persuading them otherwise can be an uphill battle. Be persistent.
Protecting Yourself Isn’t Easy (But it Can Be Done!)
There are a surprising number of ways for identity theft to happen, and as old tricks lose their effectiveness you can be sure scammers will come up with new ones. As with dieting, it’s hard to be consistent about utilizing good digital security habits over the longer term. But just like with losing weight, there’s no better time to begin than today.
Some well-established good habits to follow include using strong passwords and usernames, never reusing those passwords or usernames, not clicking on random links or downloading dubious apps, and reviewing your accounts weekly instead of monthly.