Protect Your Identity and Data

The 7 Most Common Identity Theft Scams You Need to Know

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Identity theft comes in all different forms. It can happen at home, online, at the store, while traveling: there are few places these criminals can't reach. A big part of protecting yourself against identity theft scams is being aware of the most common ones. Read about the seven most common scams below, and learn what to watch out for to keep yourself and your loved ones safe.

1. Your trash = their treasure

These days, most news about identity theft focuses on information stolen online. But don't forget about the old-fashioned way – criminals going through your trash (or mail) for financial documents, credit card applications, bank statements, medical bills, junk mail offers and any other papers that continue personal information.

The best defense against this "dumpster diving" is to invest in a shredder so that when you throw away any sensitive documents or junk mail, there is no chance a criminal could piece it back together. Also, stay on top of your mail and don't let it pile up in the mailbox for days on end. If you are out of town, ask someone to get your mail for you or have the post office hold it until you return.

2. Over the phone

Be wary of anyone requesting personal information from you over the phone. Phone scams vary from telemarketers calling you with a special, limited time offer or prize package you've won, to people impersonating government agencies and credit card companies. The criminals will try to pressure you into sharing financial or personal information. They might even say they "just need you to confirm" account information.

Legitimate businesses and government organizations will not require you to respond at that moment and they usually give you other means of contact. If you are tempted to give out any information, ask for the information or offer in writing and/or check online for a customer service number you can call back to confirm.

Finally, make sure your numbers are on the National Do Not Call Registry. Once your home and mobile numbers are on that list for 31 days, you should stop receiving calls from most telemarketers. The ones that still call you are most likely trying to scam you.

3. Credit or debit card skimming

"Skimmers" are devices that are added to machines such as ATMs, gas pumps or fast food payment stations to intercept your card information. Criminals use that information to make cloned cards. Sometimes, they add a camera to the machine so that they can see you enter your PIN – that way they have your card and PIN numbers and can completely drain your account.

Skimmers can be hard to spot (check out this gallery of different types of skimmers) but there are some things you can keep an eye out for. If any part of the machine looks different in color or material from the other parts, it might be a skimmer. If any part is loose, it might be a skimmer.

One last tip: at ATMs, always cover up the keypad with your other hand as you enter in your PIN. If a camera is installed, this will block the view.

4. Smartphones

Does your phone include personal information, such as passwords or credit card details? Have you ever used public Wi-Fi from your phone at coffee shops, libraries or other businesses? If so, you are at risk of having information stolen from your phone by hackers. Any activity you do on your phone while logged onto public Wi-Fi can be watched by a hacker, so if you visit your bank's website, for example, that hacker now has you're your username and password for that site, along with access to your accounts. To avoid becoming a victim, don't store sensitive information on your phone and never share personal information over public Wi-Fi.

According to Pew Research Center, 81% of adult cell phone users send or receive text messages. Criminals have recognized this as a huge potential market for victims and have started sending text messages with offers similar to phone scams. The text usually includes a link to a site that will request personal details. Never click on links in texts from numbers you don't know. And if it is from someone you do know but something about the text doesn't seem quite right, check with that person — his or her phone may have a virus!

5. Medical records

Medical identity theft is when someone uses another person's name and information from health records to get medical service or make false insurance claims. Once information is stolen a thief may see a doctor, get prescription drugs or file claims with an insurance provider.

You can't control whether breaches happen at hospitals or medical organizations where your information is on file, but you can control the information you share. When asked to provide personal information (such as your Social Security number or birthdate), find out why it's needed, how it will be kept safe, whether it will be shared and, if so, with whom.

7. Tax fraud

The IRS pays more than $5 billion in fraudulent tax returns. To file a fraudulent online tax return, all criminals need is a name, date of birth and Social Security number. Then they forge a W-2 and e-file with ease, knowing that the IRS doesn't verify returns before paying out refunds. The first time the IRS becomes aware of the problem is when a second return is submitted for the same taxpayer.

Because the IRS operates on a "pay refunds first, ask questions later" model, the sooner you file, the less likely someone else will file in your name before you do. If a criminal does beat you to the punch, the IRS estimates it will take 180 days to resolve your case.

6. Data breaches

According to security experts, nearly every company is vulnerable to breaches, and 97% of companies are actually having their systems hacked into. Cybercriminals are getting more sophisticated about how they hack into systems, meaning that it often takes companies months before they realize your data was stolen.

This means that by the time you find out about the breach, your information could have been circulating for weeks or months on underground sites. The best defense you have against data breaches is a credit monitoring and Internet surveillance program that constantly scans underground sites and will let you know if your information shows up there.


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