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What Is Identity Theft?

Posted on October 24, 2018

Identity theft takes many forms — from a stolen Social Security card to someone taking your tax refund to a data breach at a company — but the basics are the same: Someone uses your personal information without your consent for financial gain.

Here are the various types of identity theft.

Social Security identity theft

If someone has your Social Security number, in combination with your birthdate and name, that person may be able to open a new credit line in your name. In a post-Equifax-hack world, you should assume that your Social Security number is out there and could be used.

Financial identity theft

Financial identity theft happens when a person’s financial accounts are accessed without their permission. There are a few varieties, including someone tapping bank accounts, credit cards or 401(k)s.

Typically, the bank or lender is on the hook for these fraudulent charges. If you notice purchases that aren’t yours, call your credit card company and dispute the charges.

Child identity theft

Child identity theft is when someone misuses a child’s personal data. A child’s Social Security number is a popular target because the record is often free of negative marks, making it easy to get approval for credit or set up utilities.

Synthetic identity theft is a relatively new type of child identity theft that is increasingly common. A scammer creates an identity with a combination of fake and real information — like a bogus name, and a real a child’s Social Security number — to open credit accounts.

Taxpayer identity theft

Taxpayer identity theft happens when someone files a tax refund with your Social Security number to take your refund before you can get it.

People whose tax refund has been claimed often discover it when their tax software says they’ve already submitted a return.

Medical identity theft

With medical identity theft, someone uses your data to get health services. This is particularly dangerous because commingled medical information could lead to treatment errors.

How to tell if you’re a victim of identity theft

Since identity theft takes many forms, pinning down whether you’re a victim will vary from one kind to the next. In general, you may be a victim of identity theft if you notice financial transactions that you don’t recognize.

Here are other signs that you might be a victim of identity theft:

  • You’re contacted by debt collectors for accounts you don’t recognize
  • You see charges on your credit card that you didn’t make
  • You don’t recognize withdrawals from your bank account
  • You see unfamiliar credit lines on your credit report
  • You get an explanation of benefits for medical services you did not receive
  • The IRS informs you that a tax return was already filed in your name
  • You get a notice from a company that your information was compromised in a data breach

How to deal with identity theft

Recovery from identity theft varies from one form to the next. Here are a few general steps to follow after identity theft:

  • Prevent further damage. Placing a fraud alert and freezing your credit can prevent the use of your Social Security number. A fraud alert requires businesses to take extra steps to verify your identity before opening new accounts, while a freeze prevents most people from accessing your credit files.
  • Report the identity theft. Where you do this depends on the kind of identity theft. For Social Security identity theft, contact the Federal Trade Commission to report the fraud. For tax identity theft, contact the IRS.
  • Clean up the damage. Unfortunately, it’ll be on you to undo some of the damage of identity theft. This could mean disputing errors from fraud on your credit report or amending errors in medical records.
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