What is identity theft? Know the warning signs

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There are many advantages to living in the digital age. Unfortunately, identity theft isn't one of them. Because so much of our personal information is online or on our electronic devices, it's much easier for fraudsters to steal identifying data than it once was. Thieves no longer need to dumpster dive to look through discarded credit card applications or bank statements to find someone's personal information. Instead, they can steal information from data breaches or hack into old computer hard drives. Some criminals have even gone to the trouble to create malware to infect computers, use deceptive email or websites, or browse social networking sites to compile data. 

Just how big a problem is identity theft? According to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC), consumers filed 5.7 million fraud reports in 2021, valued at more than $5.8 billion. Of these, 25% were specific to identity theft, which saw a 113% increase year-over-year.

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Common victims

Anyone is susceptible to identity theft. However, FTC statistics show interesting patterns that suggest some groups are targeted much more than others. Those 30-to-39 years old were most affected by identity theft in 2021, followed by those in their 40s and 50s, respectively. 

Historically, young adults and seniors are more targeted. However, the COVID pandemic has shifted those numbers in 2020 and 2021. Whether the change is permanent isn't yet known. 

Types of identity theft

As noted in another report, there are eight types of identity theft. These can include government documents or benefits fraud, which typically involves someone using someone else's Social Security number, the aforementioned credit card fraud, and loan or lease fraud. There's also phone or utility fraud, banking fraud, employment or tax-related fraud, medical identity theft, and, finally, child identity fraud.

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Warning signs

There are common warning signs of identity theft. Knowing these can help possible victims more quickly identity possible issues and get on the path to resolving them. Warning signs differ between adults and children. Yes, children are at risk of identity theft. The reason? Children with Social Security numbers don't yet have credit, which criminals can use to their advantage and open new lines of credit, and more.

For adults

The majority of identity theft cases recently were those involving credit cards. If an existing credit card was stolen (physically or virtually), it won't take long until you'll find out you've become a victim. Either the credit card company will contact you about unfamiliar transactions, or you'll notice them on your online statement. If someone has opened a new credit card in your name, you might not find this out until it shows up on your credit report. It's one of the (many) reasons you might want to consider using a credit monitoring service.  You should also take the necessary steps to better secure your Social Security number

When things get really bad, you might begin getting calls from debt collectors warning you about unpaid credit card bills. Hopefully, you'll know a long time before this that something has happened. 

Another identity theft warning sign begins with the letters "IRS" or the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. You probably have a problem if you get an unexpected notice from the federal agency or can't file your yearly taxes (because someone already did so using your identity). Unfamiliar revenue on your IRS record is another warning sign. 

Identity theft could also take the form of illegal medical claims filed in your name. You might spot this the next time you go to use your benefits and see that you've reached the yearly limit or when you attempt to purchase new coverage. Either way, someone is using your identity for medical care. 

Adults should also be aware of data breaches that could include their name, Social Security number, or email address. In time, fraudsters could use this information to perform identity theft. Consumers are typically made aware when data breaches occur. For example, if Citibank servers are compromised, the bank is likely to send you a notice and suggest ways to avoid lasting damage. 


Minors, or rather their parents, should also look out for identity theft warning signs. In this case, a fraudster has targeted someone under age that has never had a job or used credit. Besides opening credit cards or bank loans in the name of a child, the criminal may apply for government benefits or try to apply for a mortgage or utility. In each case, they're taking advantage of the minor's clear credit history. 

Among the warning signs are IRS notices, collection calls for a debt in a child's name, and bills for unfamiliar products or services. Parents should also be on the lookout for credit card or loan offers being sent to the home for the child or having government benefits declined.

If you're a victim

If there are signs you are a victim of identity theft, there are steps you can take to begin clearing your name. First, if you can tie the theft back to a credit card company, bank, or government agency, try to make contact as soon as possible. Credit card companies have the resources to resolve identity theft issues quickly for customers. In addition, unrecognized charges are often immediately removed from the victim's account once an official report is filed.  Contact numbers are easy to find on statements, websites, and credit reports. 

Finally, one should contact the FTC and file an official report. For more information, visit the FTC's identity theft website

For added peace of mind, look at the many ways to protect your Social Security numbers from hackers

Bryan M Wolfe

Bryan M. Wolfe is a staff writer at TechRadar, iMore, and wherever Future can use him. Though his passion is Apple-based products, he doesn't have a problem using Windows and Android. Bryan's a single father of a 15-year-old daughter and a puppy, Isabelle. Thanks for reading!