How to Detect Signs of Identity Theft

When it comes to identity theft, trust your gut when something doesn’t feel right. Follow up. What you’re seeing could be a problem.  

A missing bill or a mysterious charge on your credit card could be the tip of an identity theft iceberg, one that can run deep if left unaddressed. Here, we’ll look at several signs of identity theft that likely need some investigation and the steps you can take to take charge of the situation.  

How does identity theft happen in the first place?  

Unfortunately, it can happen in several ways.   

In the physical world, it can happen simply because you lost your wallet or debit card. However, there are also cases where someone gets your information by going through your mail or trash for bills and statements. In other more extreme cases, theft can happen by someone successfully registering a change of address form in your name (although the U.S. Postal Service has security measures in place that make this difficult).   

In the digital world, that’s where the avenues of identity theft blow wide open. It could come by way of a data breach, a thief “skimming” credit card information from a point-of-sale terminal, or by a dedicated crook piecing together various bits of personal information that have been gathered from social media, phishing attacks, or malware designed to harvest information. Additionally, thieves may eavesdrop on public Wi-Fi and steal information from people who are shopping or banking online without the security of a VPN.  

Regardless of how crooks pull it off, identity theft is on the rise. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), identity theft claims jumped up from roughly 650,000 claims in 2019 to 1 million in 2023. Of the reported fraud cases where a dollar loss was reported, the FTC calls out the following top three contact methods for identity theft:  

  • Online ads that direct you to a scammer’s site are designed to steal your information.  
  • Malicious websites and apps also steal information when you use them.  
  • Social media scams lure you into providing personal information, whether through posts or direct messages.  

However, phone calls, texts, and email remain the most preferred contact methods that fraudsters use, even if they are less successful in creating dollar losses than malicious websites, ads, and social media.  

What are some signs of identity theft?  

Identity thieves leave a trail. With your identity in hand, they can charge things to one or more of your existing accounts—and if they have enough information about you, they can even create entirely new accounts in your name. Either way, once an identity thief strikes, you’re probably going to notice that something is wrong. Possible signs include:  

  • You start getting mail for accounts that you never opened.   
  • Statements or bills stop showing up from your legitimate accounts.  
  • You receive authentication messages for accounts you don’t recognize via email, text, or phone.   
  • Debt collectors contact you about an account you have no knowledge of.  
  • Unauthorized transactions, however large or small, show up in your bank or credit card statements.  
  • You apply for credit and get unexpectedly denied.  
  • And in extreme cases, you discover that someone else has filed a tax return in your name.  

As you can see, the signs of possible identity theft can run anywhere from, “Well, that’s strange …” to “OH NO!” However, the good news is that there are several ways to check if someone is using your identity before it becomes a problem – or before it becomes a big problem that gets out of hand.   

Steps to take if you suspect that you’re the victim of identity theft  

The point is that if you suspect fraud, you need to act right away. With identity theft becoming increasingly commonplace, many businesses, banks, and organizations have fraud reporting mechanisms in place that can assist you should you have any concerns. With that in mind, here are some immediate steps you can take:  

1) Notify the companies and institutions involved 

Whether you spot a curious charge on your bank statement or you discover what looks like a fraudulent account when you get your free credit report, let the bank or business involved know you suspect fraud. With a visit to their website, you can track down the appropriate number to call and get the investigation process started.   

2) File a police report 

Some businesses will require you to file a local police report to acquire a case number to complete your claim. Even beyond a business making such a request, filing a report is still a good idea. Identity theft is still theft and reporting it provides an official record of the incident. Should your case of identity theft lead to someone impersonating you or committing a crime in your name, filing a police report right away can help clear your name down the road. Be sure to save any evidence you have, like statements or documents that are associated with the theft. They can help clean up your record as well.  

3) Contact the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) 

The FTC’s identity theft website is a fantastic resource should you find yourself in need. Above and beyond simply reporting the theft, the FTC can provide you with a step-by-step recovery plan—and even walk you through the process if you create an account with them. Additionally, reporting theft to the FTC can prove helpful if debtors come knocking to collect on any bogus charges in your name. You can provide them with a copy of your FTC report and ask them to stop.  

4) Place a fraud alert and consider a credit freeze 

You can place a free one-year fraud alert with one of the major credit bureaus (Experian, TransUnion, Equifax), and they will notify the other two. A fraud alert will make it tougher for thieves to open accounts in your name, as it requires businesses to verify your identity before issuing new credit in your name.  

A credit freeze goes a step further. As the name implies, a freeze prohibits creditors from pulling your credit report, which is needed to approve credit. Such a freeze is in place until you lift it, and it will also apply to legitimate queries as well. Thus, if you intend to get a loan or new credit card while a freeze is in place, you’ll likely need to take extra measures to see that through. Contact each of the major credit bureaus (Experian, TransUnion, Equifax) to put a freeze in place or lift it when you’re ready.  

5) Dispute any discrepancies in your credit reports 

This can run the gamut from closing any false accounts that were set up in your name, removing bogus charges, and correcting information in your credit report such as phony addresses or contact information. With your FTC report, you can dispute these discrepancies and have the business correct the record. Be sure to ask for written confirmation and keep a record of all documents and conversations involved.   

6) Contact the IRS, if needed 

If you receive a notice from the IRS that someone used your identity to file a tax return in your name, follow the information provided by the IRS in the notice. From there, you can file an identity theft affidavit with the IRS. If the notice mentions that you were paid by an employer you don’t know, contact that employer as well and let them know of possible fraud—namely that someone has stolen your identity and that you don’t truly work for them.  

Also, be aware that the IRS has specific guidelines as to how and when they will contact you. As a rule, they will most likely contact you via physical mail delivered by the U.S. Postal Service. (They won’t call or apply harassing pressure tactics—only scammers do that.) Identity-based tax scams are a topic all of their own, and for more on it, you can check out this article on tax scams and how to avoid them.  

7) Continue to monitor your credit report, invoices, and statements 

Another downside of identity theft is that it can mark the start of a long, drawn-out affair. One instance of theft can possibly lead to another, so even what may appear to be an isolated bad charge on your credit card calls for keeping an eye on your identity. Many of the tools you would use up to this point still apply, such as checking up on your credit reports, maintaining fraud alerts as needed, and reviewing your accounts closely.  

Preventing identity theft 

With all the time we spend online as we bank, shop, and simply surf, we create and share all kinds of personal information—information that can get collected and even stolen. The good news is that you can prevent theft and fraud with online protection software, such as McAfee+ Ultimate 

With McAfee+ Ultimate you can: 

  • Monitor your credit activity on all three major credit bureaus to stay on top of unauthorized use.​ 
  • Also, monitor the dark web for breaches involving your personal info and notify you if it’s found.​ 
  • Lock or freeze your credit file to help prevent accounts from being opened in your name. 
  • Remove your personal info from over 40 data broker sites collecting and selling it. 
  • Restore your identity with a licensed expert should the unexpected happen.​ 
  • Receive $1M identity theft and stolen funds coverage along with additional $25K ransomware coverage. 

In all, it’s our most comprehensive privacy, identity, and device protection plan, built for a time when we rely so heavily on the internet to go about our day, whether that’s work, play, or simply getting things done. 

Righting the wrongs of identity theft: deep breaths and an even keel  

Realizing that you’ve become a victim of identity theft carries plenty of emotion with it, which is understandable—the thief has stolen a part of you to get at your money, information, and even reputation. Once that initial rush of anger and surprise has passed, it’s time to get clinical and get busy. Think like a detective who’s building – and closing – a case. That’s exactly what you’re doing. Follow the steps, document each one, and build up your case file as you need. Staying cool, organized, and ready with an answer to any questions you’ll face in the process of restoring your identity will help you see things through.  

Once again, this is a good reminder that vigilance is the best defense against identity theft from happening in the first place. While there’s no absolute, sure-fire protection against it, there are several things you can do to lower the odds in your favor. And at the top of the list is keeping consistent tabs on what’s happening across your credit reports and accounts.  

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