For more than a decade, identity theft has been a growing threat to consumers. In 2022, it topped the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) top 10 list of scams victimizing consumers for a second consecutive year.
For National Consumer Protection Week, we’re taking a look at the extent of this threat and how consumers can protect themselves.
When criminals obtain someone’s personally identifiable information (PII) they can take out loans and make credit purchases in the victim’s name, assuming their identity. The victim might not find out until months later, when these unpaid debts have been turned over to collections, decimating their credit score.
The damage is not easily repaired. The victim must show that they did not take out the loans and that can be a long and costly process.
Criminals obtain PII from a variety of sources, often from a network data breach. Recently, the Office of the Maine Attorney General and Cybersecurity Dive reported nearly 35,000 PayPal accounts were accessed via a credential stuffing attack.
In these kinds of attacks, criminals use stolen login credentials to gain access to networks or databases. The PayPal attack reportedly exposed personal information, including names, addresses, Social Security numbers, tax identification numbers and dates of birth.
How to protect yourself
In a case like that, the consumer might be completely unaware that their PII is at risk. Mon Terry, chief victims officer at the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC), says there are two important things you can do to protect yourself.
“To protect your identity online and on accounts with electronic access, start by using a unique 12+ character passphrase for each of your accounts,” Terry told ConsumerAffairs. “They are easier to remember and harder for an identity criminal to crack. Also, use multifactor authentication on your accounts, preferably with an authenticator app. It adds an extra layer of security.”
The second step may be even more crucial. When you freeze access to your credit reports at Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion, even someone with your Social Security number can’t take out a loan or apply for a credit card.
“It is free and an easy way to keep your information from being used to open new financial accounts without your permission,” Terry said.
Freeze children’s accounts too
Parents of young children should also consider freezing their child’s credit. Since a child is unlikely to take out a loan or credit card, identity fraud involving a child’s Social Security number could go undetected for years.
“Too often, we hear stories about people trying to rent an apartment in college or open their first credit card, only to find out identity crimes had happened in their name for years,” Terry said. A credit freeze is the best way to restrict access to your child’s credit report.”
Finally, consumers can protect themselves by being very careful about the information about themselves they share. Identity thieves comb social media platforms gathering bits of information. Getting a name, a birthday, a spouse’s name, etc., can give a clever thief an advantage as they try to steal your identity.
Do not click on unexpected pop-ups or links in emails, texts, or social media posts. Instead, go straight to the source when verifying the links provided in an email, text, or social media post.