What is Identity Theft?

What is Identity Theft?

Identity theft sounds scary, but for many, the meaning isn't entirely clear. What does it mean to say someone has stolen your identity? Just what are the consequences? As it turns out, those consequences can range from having to get a new credit card to spending time in jail. Let's look at just what kind of trouble an identity thief can cause you.


Credit Cards

Your credit card numbers are incredibly vulnerable. Every time you hand the card to a restaurant server, you're taking a chance. Even when you swipe the card at a point of sale terminal, the risk remains that the merchant won't safeguard your data properly. Remember the Target breach last year, and Home Depot this year?

For individuals, banks are quick to cancel and replace affected cards, and you're not actually liable for fraudulent charges, though it can be a real hassle to catch and report them quickly. Bear in mind, though, that corporate and small business accounts don't enjoy this same protection. If a thief gets your business credit card number, you or your business are responsible for the fraudulent charges.

Email Accounts

What's your email password? 123456? Password? If your password is weak or easily guessed, you run the risk of having your email account taken over. "So what?" you may say, "Some guy in Russia can read my email messages to my sister?"

Really, though, that email account can be a gateway to a serious takeover of more important accounts. Many secure sites default to using your email address as your username. If you lazily used the same password at a financial site, the thief immediately has access to your account.

Even if you're diligent, using a different strong password at every secure website, your accounts aren't safe. Secure sites must deal with the fact that people forget their passwords. In many cases, the solution to a forgotten password involves sending an email with a password reset link. After a password reset the thief owns the account, and you're locked out.

Of course, the thief could also use your email account to spam people you know. Chances are good the account will get shut down once the spam activity is detected. That's no problem for the thief, who just goes and steals another account.

Social Media Accounts

If you lose control of your Facebook or Twitter account, the identity thief can broadcast malware or phishing links to your friends and followers. All your private messages, photos, and posts are an open book.

It's not just your privacy that's lost when a thief takes over your social media account. More and more websites let you log in using your Facebook or Twitter account rather than creating a username and password. If you do so, you're giving an identity thief the keys to the kingdom.

Social Security Number

Picture this: You've lived in your house for years, and you're finally ready to move up (or downsize). But when you go to sell the house, you find that there's a lien on the property. How did that happen? Some malefactor used your social security number in a shady deal, then failed to pay up. Unbeknownst to you, the victim attempted to recoup losses by placing a lien on your home.

Or, what if you went to buy a house and couldn't get a mortgage because someone else set up a mortgage using your SSN and that mortgage was foreclosed?

Bills and Statements

Did you think that guy poking around your recycling bin was scrounging up bottles and cans for change? He may have been looking for bank statements, bills, and other papers with personally identifiable information.

Armed with your age, social security number, address, and other personal data, the thief can open new credit accounts in your name. At this point, the clock is ticking; the thief must convert that credit into cash or goods before you get the first unexpected bill. Alternatively, a cagey thief might use a false address on the account, so you don't get any warning at all (until the collection agency shows up at your door).

A collection agency might be the least of your worries. That knock on the door could be the police, with a warrant for your arrest. An identity thief who commits a crime while posing as you can land you in jail, at least until you can prove you're not the perpetrator.


How to Prevent Identity Theft from Happening to You

The most important thing is to take some reasonable precautions with your personal information. Some ways to do that include:

  • Make sure that nobody can see the keypad when you enter your PIN at an ATM or store
  • Keep your wallet secure; zip your purse or keep it in a buttoned pocket
  • Remove your name from direct mail marketing at this site to prevent pre-approved credit offers
  • Protect your computer and Wi-Fi networks with passwords and anti-spyware
  • Don’t reveal personal information to phon