Home Advice & How-ToIdentity How to Check for Identity Theft: 8 Powerful Tips
Home Advice & How-ToIdentity How to Check for Identity Theft: 8 Powerful Tips

How to Check for Identity Theft: 8 Powerful Tips

by Fred Decker

If you’re looking for some scary reading, forget about Stephen King and Clive Barker.  The modern way to lose sleep is to look at the statistics on identity theft, or the appalling number of data breaches that take place in any given year. 

Whether you’re actually losing sleep over the possibility or simply view it with well-founded unease, knowing how to check for identity theft is a fundamental modern survival skill.  Here’s what you need to know. 

How Worried Should You Be? 

Truthfully, if you aren’t worried about identity theft you just haven’t been paying attention.  Security firm Varonis tallied a total of 3,950 confirmed data breaches in 2020 (that’s more than 10 every day!), at an average cost of $3.86 million to the affected companies; and more than half of those involved the loss of user data. 

Over 90 percent of US health care organizations have reported at least one data breach over the past three years.  Facebook and Twitter have been breached to the tune of hundreds of millions of users’ data, and Yahoo still holds the dubious distinction of suffering the largest breach ever at over 3 billion accounts compromised. 

According to statistics compiled by the FTC, consumers filed almost 2.2 million fraud reports in 2020, totaling $3.3 billion in losses (a massive leap from $1.8 billion in 2019).  Of those nearly 2.2 million reports, identity theft was the most common category.  Young consumers were more likely to lose money to scammers, but older consumers were likely to lose more money.  So it’s helpful to know the telltale signs of identity theft, and how to check for them (lest you contribute to next year’s total). 

How to Check for Identity Theft

Identity theft can occur in any number of ways, from those massive data breaches to low-tech theft from your mailbox which affects just you.  You might fall victim to a shoulder-surfer, a phishing email or a phone scam.  No matter how it happens (and the possibilities, sadly, are endless), there will be a number of signs that can alert you to a potential problem. 

Here are some of the best ways to detect them. 

1. Review Your Statements Diligently

Yeah, it doesn’t get any more old-school than this.  Whether you get your statements digitally or in dead-tree form, take the time each month to really read them, not just take a passing glance.  Purchases you didn’t make, a second credit card you didn’t apply for…anything suspicious can be a red flag indicating identity theft. 

2. Monitor Your Mail

The non-arrival of mail you’re expecting (bills, or statements from your insurers, bank, credit card company, cellular carrier…) can be an indication that identity thieves have either hijacked your physical address or gotten access to your accounts and changed the mailing address.  If you don’t see the statements, you can’t challenge their bogus purchases, right? 

3. Don’t (Necessarily) Ignore “Bogus” Collection Notices

One of the most damaging aspects of identity theft occurs when scammers use your good name to apply for credit (or misuse your existing accounts).  After running up the biggest possible tab, they skip out on the payments, leaving you holding the bag.  Really brazen criminals might even challenge and overturn some of those purchases (they really are fraudulent, after all) and then max out the account again

Some unexpected collection notices are indeed outright scams, but a sudden spate of them might mean you’ve been the victim of identity theft.  Which leads us to the next step…

4. Pull Your Credit Reports Regularly

Pulling your credit report regularly is the best way to know when your credit is being subverted.  Federal law requires the three main reporting agencies — TransUnion, Equifax and Experian — to provide you with a free report, on request, at least once each year.  If you request them one at a time, that means getting a report every 4 months at no cost. 

If you have reason to believe your identity has been compromised, pull an additional report right away, even if you’re out of free ones (the cost is minimal compared to the pain it can help prevent). 


5. Watch for Data Breaches

With data breaches releasing hundreds of millions of peoples’ information into the wild each year, it’s important to know when you’re affected.  One way to do that is by setting up a Google Alert for the phrase “data breach,” along with other keywords such as “user data.”  The site search on your favorite news site is another good source: just type in “data breach” or “stolen data” and see what you get. 

6. Search Yourself (Not in the Philosophical Sense)

Periodically — the first weekend of every month, or whatever schedule makes sense for you — pay a visit to Spokeo’s people search tools and enter in your own name, address, email and phone number.  Normally the search results will either be clearly you or clearly someone else (someone with the same name, or perhaps the previous person who had your number).  If you find your name and other identification connected with public social email profiles that aren’t yours, that’s a very large red flag. 

7. Use Dark-Web Monitoring

One of the most frightening statistics compiled by Varonis is that on average, it took 228 days for breaches to be identified and another 80 days for them to be contained.  That’s about 10 months, which is a long time for criminals to have free use of your information.  One way to “break the circuit” and get an early warning that you’ve been compromised is through dark-web monitoring. 

The dark web is a secretive corner of the internet, occupied by dissidents, hackers and (inevitably) criminals.  That’s where stolen personal ID is bought and sold, so if you detect it at this stage — before it’s used — you may have a reasonable likelihood of limiting the damage.  24/7 dark-web monitoring is a core feature of Spokeo’s new identity theft protection product — Spokeo Protect.  It’s a pretty priceless form of peace of mind. 

What to Do Next

Identity theft brings a lot of (mostly unpleasant) repercussions, so if you find that your information has been compromised, the road to recovery can be a long one.  That’s a whole other topic in itself, but your first step should be to visit the FTC’s IdentityTheft.gov site. 

You can report your case there, and also get a personalized recovery plan laying out the next steps to take (contacting your bank and creditors, placing a credit freeze or extended fraud alert with the credit agencies, and so on).  At a minimum, you should probably also report your case to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3)

It’s almost impossible to avoid the risk of identity theft completely.  The good news is that the sooner you notice and report it, the less damaging it can be (and the less costly, and time-consuming, to fix).  Knowing how to check for identity theft, and following those steps diligently, can save you a world of hurt — and it’s something that’s within your control.