How to Protect Your Online Identity and What to Do If You Become an Identity Theft Victim

Identity theft

Every 2 seconds, someone becomes a victim of identity theft. That means by the time you finish reading this sentence, the next victim could be you. Your best defense starts with educating yourself about the threat. This comprehensive identity theft guide includes:

  • Understanding the threat
  • Types of attacks
  • How to protect yourself
  • What to do if you're a victim

Understanding the threat

Identity theft is a widespread crime that's continually evolving with technology and trends. These crooks aren't necessarily after your money either. They have a variety of schemes to get a hold of your personal information and use it to steal your money, sell your identity, commit fraud or commit other crimes in your name. To understand the breadth of the crime, you should know these three things:

  • There are several million identity theft victims every single year
  • Because identity thieves have varying motives, they target all types of people-not just people with good credit and lots of money
  • Many identity theft victims don't know they've been targeted for weeks, months or even years after the fact. They find out when they're declined for a loan or when a collection agency is demanding payment.

Types of identity theft attacks

Identity thieves have a variety of ways to steal your information-both high and low tech. With the constant evolution of technology, there is a constant evolution of ways identity thieves can steal data. These are the most common:

Dumpster diving

It's exactly as it sounds. Thieves will go through your trash looking for bills, receipts and other documents containing your personal information.

Phishing, Vishing & Smishing

Identity thieves will email (phishing), call (vishing) or text (smishing) you pretending to be someone else-likely a bank or other institution your trust- and request that you provide more information. They've even been known to replicate a popular website hoping to trick you into filling out an online form.


Your computer, smartphone and mobile devices could all be at risk. Hackers can install malware, keystroke-logging software and other malicious technology that grabs your information without you ever noticing.

Data breach

When an organization like a bank, retailer or doctor's office gets hacked, the damage is often widespread impacting hundreds or thousands of customers. Hackers may use stolen information for identity fraud, or they may simply sell it on black market websites for other criminals to purchase and use. Many people affected by data breaches don't even know they're victims until several years after the event occurred.

How to protect yourself from identity theft

Shred your information

Buy a cross-cut shredder and make sure you shred any documents containing personal information before you toss them in the dumpster.

Lock your devices and use strong passwords

Be sure to password protect all of your devices, and use unique, complicated passwords for your online accounts.

Research shows that 70% of consumers struggle to maintain and monitor their different accounts and associated passwords. However, think about the risks associated with your passwords — once a fraudster gets hold of one, your account can be compromised.

We're not just talking about financial accounts either. We're also referring to social media accounts thieves can hijack and then find ways to use your details and compromise your online security. Two important points to remember: be sure to set strong passwords and do not use the same passwords across accounts. Ignoring these points can make it much easier for fraudsters to get into your accounts and do as they please.

Beware of public Wi-Fi

Never log in to financial accounts or shop online while using public Wi-Fi, and make sure to encrypt and password protect your Wi-Fi at home.

Monitor your credit and accounts

Review your credit reports and bank accounts periodically looking for suspicious activity and errors that could signify identity theft.

If you feel your FICO® Score is a lot lower than you think it should be, that could be a sign that an identity thief might have gotten hold of your information. To know for sure, you can check your credit report and look for incorrect information, suspicious inquiries and new accounts.

Detect threats

Consider purchasing an identity theft detection product that includes identity theft restoration. If you do become a victim of identity theft, you'll be notified quickly and be able to lean on certified specialists to help restore your identity.

What to do if you become a victim of an identity thief

When an identity thief steals and uses your personal information for financial or personal gain, it can feel violating, devastating and confusing. You can recover, but you must be patient and meticulous.

Contact your creditors and banks

The first thing you should do is contact any affected entity. For example, if an identity thief hacked into your bank account, contact your bank immediately. Government agencies should also be notified. If a thief has your Social Security number, you should notify the Social Security Administration and the Internal Revenue Service.

Inform the FTC and police

In order to investigate a case, many organizations will require you to file a police report and an identity theft affidavit. The affidavit can be found at the Federal Trade Commission's website, and it only takes a few minutes to fill out. To file a police report, simply head to your local police station with your affidavit in hand and explain the situation.

Review your credit reports

Order and review your credit reports looking for information you do not recognize. If you see fraudulent activity, you should file a dispute with the credit bureaus. If you believe a thief is opening credit in your name, you might want to consider a fraud alert or credit freeze.

A fraud alert is a red flag on your credit file. If someone applies for a loan in your name and a lender pulls your file, the lender will be notified of the fraud alert. A credit freeze actually prevents any lender from accessing your file at all. Both types of protection can help keep thieves from opening new lines of credit in your name, but they come with downsides. A fraud alert does not prevent a lender from approving a credit application, and a credit freeze prevents all credit approvals-even if you're the one applying.

Continue to monitor your accounts

Finally, it's important to continue to periodically review your credit reports and other accounts containing personal information. Once identity thieves have your personal information, they have it forever.

They can continue to commit fraud in your name and come up with new ways to use your personal information. You could see the impact even years after the initial theft occurred. Because of the persistent monitoring required to stay protected, subscribing for an identity theft monitoring service may be a safer and easier option.

A few additional items to check off your list…

  • Change all account passwords and add a password to those accounts that don't have one.
  • Contact the Office of the Inspector General to see if your Social Security Number has been used by a criminal.
  • Get a new driver's license if you find yours was used by a fraudster.
  • Let your utility companies know about the fraud in case the criminal is using your utility bill as proof of residence.