Updated: Dec 17, 2019
It only takes a quick Google search to discover the latest online security breach, leading to fears of new cases of identity theft. But do you know what it is exactly and what to do if someone steals your identity? Learn more about this common crime and how to protect yourself from becoming a victim.
What is it? Identity theft occurs when someone takes another person's private information and uses it in a fraudulent manner. It's often for financial gain. Some examples include applying for credit cards or loans under a false name, stealing funds from someone's bank accounts and buying items under someone else's name.
How common is identity theft? A 2014 U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics survey found that 7 percent of Americans age 16 or older were victims. Overall, identity thieves preyed on approximately 17.6 million individuals in 2014, including babies and children.
What does the law say? The Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act of 1998 turned this personal violation into a federal crime. Since then, other legislation has gone into affect to further protect victims and punish perpetrators, including several federal and state laws that apply to credit card fraud. In some circumstances, identity theft can carry a fine and a maximum prison sentence of 15 years.
How can you protect yourself? Shred all documents with financial information, keep your passwords private, leave your Social Security card at home and question anyone who asks you to share your number or your child's number. Also be wary of sharing any personal information over a public Wi-Fi network.
What should you do if you're a victim? If you're the target of identity theft, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recommends taking the following steps: File a report with the local police, file a complaint with the FTC, contact one of the major credit bureaus to put a fraud alert on your account and close any accounts that have been compromised.