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The Common Risks of Identity Theft

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This is the first of two articles about how you may be impacted by identity theft. Identity theft occurs when a fraudster obtains personally identifiable information (PII) about someone and then uses it without permission to commit fraud or other crimes, typically posing as that person.

Most people who become victims of identity theft are vulnerable simply because they do not think like fraudsters. Sometimes fraudsters target and stalk individuals, but other times they simply take advantage of opportunities because people do not see the risks around them. 

Examples of everyday behavior where risk of PII theft is created include:

  • Financial trash – fraudsters can search through your garbage (or “dumpster dive”) for documents that contain social security numbers, bank account information, or other PII.
  • Wallet/Purse – fraudsters can take advantage of you while you’re in a comfortable environment. You might leave your wallet or purse out, such as in an unlocked car, on your desk in the workplace, on a table at a social event, etc.
  • Incoming Mail – fraudsters stealing letters sitting in mailboxes.
  • Outgoing Mail – A flag up on a mailbox is a signal to fraudsters that it may contain a check. Besides the immediate risk of the check being chemically altered (or “washed”) and forged, some checks have pre-printed PII on them, such as telephone number, social security number or driver’s license number.
  • Public Transactions – when you use an ATM or read a credit card number over the phone, fraudsters may be looking over your shoulder to read a PIN or listen to and memorize your credit card number.
  • Unsolicited Phone Calls – fraudsters may call you with false offers for credit cards, loans or financial opportunities. Although you may decline such offers, the fraudster manipulates (or “social engineers”) you into providing certain PII.
  • Internet Scams – bogus offers for financial products can be sent through email or presented on phony websites. Don’t provide PII in responding to such offers, as it goes straight to fraudsters. It could allow computer viruses to infect your home computer, which fraudsters will use later to gather PII directly from personal files.

The precise impact of identity theft on U.S. citizens is unknown, but it’s been estimated to be at least $15 billion annually, and it requires victims to spend as much as 300 hours of their own time to resolve issues related to illegal use of their names and other PII.

Fighting back against identity theft threats requires a combination of prevention – stopping it before it happens – and detection – finding any possible occurrences – quickly to minimize financial damage. Next month, we’ll bring you specific prevention and detection steps you can take.

(This article was adapted from information reported in the CFPB and FDIC’s Resource Guide, “Money Smart for Older Adults”)