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Sometimes called a “Silent Crime,” the rise in Identity Theft in the United States is staggering. Nearly 60 million Americans have been affected by identity theft according to a 2018 online survey by The Harris Poll. Identity theft occurs when someone uses your personally identifying information, like your name, Social Security number, or credit card number, without your permission, to commit fraud or other crimes.

The crime takes many forms from making fraudulent charges on a credit card all the way through renting an apartment, obtaining a credit card, or even establishing a telephone account in your name. You may not find out about the theft until you review your credit report or a credit card statement and notice charges you didn’t make—or until you’re contacted by a debt collector.

How do thieves steal an identity?

Identity theft starts with the misuse of your personally identifying information such as your name and Social Security number, credit card numbers, or other financial account information. For identity thieves, this information is as good as gold. Skilled identity thieves may use a variety of methods to get hold of your information, including:

  • Dumpster Diving. They rummage through trash looking for bills or other paper with your personal information on it.
  • Skimming. They steal credit/debit card numbers by using a special storage device when you process your card at places like gas stations.
  • Phishing. They pretend to be financial institutions or companies and send spam or pop-up messages to get you to reveal your personal information.
  • Changing Your Address. They divert your account statements to another location by completing a change of address form.
  • Old-Fashioned Stealing. They steal wallets and purses; mail, including bank and credit card statements; pre-approved credit offers; and new checks or tax information. They steal personnel record, or bribe employees who have access.
  • Pretexting. They use false pretenses to obtain your personal information from financial institutions, telephone companies, and other sources.
  • Obituaries. Scammers look at obituaries for names and addresses, then buy social security numbers and other personal data for the deceased individual.
  • Document Forgery. Forgers obtain signed checks and alter the payee and/or dollar amount. To avoid this problem, always use a gel pen for your checks.
  • Gift card scams. There are many varieties of scams related to gift cards. An email from an unknown address (but personal contact) asks someone to “procure” gift cards to be sent to a certain address.
  • “Tech” Support. Scammers claim to be representatives of a software firm – sometimes going as far as spoofing a caller ID so that your phone displays the name of your trusted company. They may ask you to install applications that give them access to your computer.
  • IRS Notices. Scammers take advantage of people’s fear of the IRS to scare them into providing sensitive information or money by phone, email, or snail mail.

For tips on how to protect your identity and how to take action if you have been a victim of identity theft, download our Guide to Protecting Yourself from Identity Theft.