Last updated: December 07, 2020
In 2019, identity theft was the most-common type of fraud complaint received by the U.S. government. In total the FTC received nearly 651,000 identity theft complaints in 2019, about one-in-five of more than 3.2-million fraud cases reported to the agency.
What is Identity Theft?
Identity theft is when a person uses your name or personal information to get a loan, use your credit card or bank accounts, or otherwise impersonate you to commit fraud, theft, or another crime. Some of most common types of identity theft are credit card fraud, loan or lease fraud, and utilities fraud.
Types of Identity Theft
There are numerous ways that a person who has stolen your identity might use your personal information.
Credit Card Fraud
Credit card fraud is when someone uses your personal information to open a new account or to obtain a credit card for an existing account that you already have in order to make fraudulent charges.Credit card fraud was the most common type of identity theft which occurred in 2019, with over 270,000 cases that year. The number of cases of credit card fraud that year was twice the number of cases of credit card fraud in 2017. Some research estimates around 35% of consumers have been victims of credit card fraud.
Loan or Lease Fraud
Loan or lease fraud is when an identity thief uses your personal information to rent a property, obtain a business or personal loan from a creditor, get a student loan, or get a loan or lease for a car. There were nearly 105,000 reports of loan or lease fraud in 2018 according to the Federal Trade Commission.
Utilities fraud occurs when a person obtains a new mobile or landline telephone service, or other new utilities services using your personal information. There were over 83,000 cases of utilities fraud amongst consumers in 2019.
Bank fraud is where someone obtains a debit card, electronic funds transfer, or Automated Clearing House (ACH) payment from your bank account, or where they open a new bank account using your personal information. There were nearly 63,000 cases of Bank Fraud in 2019.
Employment & Tax Fraud
Identity thieves, at times, can use personal information to apply for jobs or to defraud tax agencies.
Identity thieves may apply for (or forge) driver’s licenses or obtain other government documents with your personal information, including passports. Thieves can also apply for government benefits, such as unemployment or food assistance.
Other Types of Fraud
There are countless other ways that an identity thief might use your personal information fraudulently. A thief could use your data to apply for insurance, obtain medical services, create other types of payment accounts in your name (such as PayPal or investment accounts), or even create social media accounts.
Identity Theft Risk Factors
Anyone with a Social Security number can be the subject of identity theft, but some studies have shown that a consumer’s risk can depend, at least in part, on how many credit accounts the consumer has and how much they use those accounts, and that the odds of identity theft are greater for people with higher incomes, for younger consumers, and for women.
Identity theft can happen to anyone. In 2019, those in the 30 to 39 age range reported the most cases of identity theft, likely because they have the greatest number of accounts and information that could be at risk to fraudsters. There are particular risks for different age groups. Children and very young consumers without established credit can be particularly vulnerable targets to identity theft, because they may not notice the thief opening new accounts on their credit report until much later. Older consumers, who more often have landline telephones, are more vulnerable to scams to steal their personal information over-the-phone.
One reason identity theft cases are increasing for all consumers is because of data breaches at businesses, such as data breaches at Equifax in 2017, and Capital One in 2019. In 2019, there were 1,473 data breaches, and nearly 165 million exposed records containing personally identifiable information (PII). Even the savviest of consumers are unable to shield themselves when their personal information is exposed because of corporate actions or inactions, and not their own.
Active Duty Status
Members of the U.S. military who are on active duty can be vulnerable to identity theft because they may not notice changes on their credit report. In 2019, there were 12,031 reports of identity theft by Active Duty Service Members.
Identity thieves can sometimes use information about consumers who have recently passed on to steal the deceased consumer’s identity. At times, they may use information to access the consumer’s Social Security Number through the Social Security Administration’s Master Death File in order to accomplish their theft.
Identity theft is also a major risk for consumers in 2020 and 2021 because of COVID-19, which is allowing cybercriminals to target Americans working from home. Fraudsters might take advantage of consumers’ fears about the pandemic to steal personal financial or medical information by making scam posts, websites, sending emails with fake information about COVID-19 or public health resources.
According to identity theft protection provider IdentityForce, some COVID-19 scams to be wary of include: fraudulent e-commerce vendors for masks, sanitizers and test kits; fake government and health organization communications; fake vaccines or “miracle cures;” scam employment posts; phony charity donation offers.
Social media and networking sites can reveal a lot of personal information about you to potential identity thieves.
Protecting Your Identity
Since there are many ways identity theft can occur, consumers must be vigilant in protecting their personal information and identity from thieves and fraudsters.
There are a number of things you can do to help protect yourself:
- Check your credit reports often. Get a copy of each of your credit reports from the big three credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and Transunion) each year. You can get a report from each bureau for free once every year at www.annualcreditreport.com, guaranteed by Federal law. You can also use free credit monitoring tools that may be available through your bank, credit union, or credit card to check in on your reports. Guardians of children can also request the big three credit bureaus to check the credit report for their child to check for issues.
- Do not give out your Social Security number if it is not necessary. Even though employers, creditors, and some government applications can require an SSN, in many cases you do not have to provide your social security number to a business or government agency just because they request it. Ask yourself and the organization if it is necessary to provide your SSN (you can leave the space blank, or write you refuse to provide your number if it is not). If an entity has refused to provide service to you because you did not provide your SSN–even though it is not truly needed to provide the service–you may want to take your business to another provider.
- Check your bank account and credit card purchases regularly for purchases you do not recognize. Investigate any charges for unusual companies or locations or you do not remember making.
- Change your passwords and PIN numbers frequently, and do not re-use the same password or PIN. Using the same password or PIN for your accounts makes it easy for thieves to gain access to many accounts at the same if they obtain your information for one account.
- Take your credit, debit, and ATM receipts with you, and make sure they are thrown away privately.
- Tear up or shred any paper with personal information on it before your throw it away, including mail with offers for credit or other products.
- Use firewall, antivirus, and anti-spyware security software on your computer to protect your information from hackers and cyberscams.
What to do if Your Identity is Stolen
If you have been the victim of fraud or identity theft—or if you think you may soon be a victim—there are options available to you to protect your credit and prevent someone who has stolen your identity from applying for credit in your name.
- Notify affected creditors, banks, and other entities immediately. If your debit or card PIN is stolen and you notify your bank within two (2) days, you can limit your loss to $50, instead of the full amount under federal law. If checks have been stolen, report those stolen checks to check authorization entities (e.g. Telecheck, ChexSystems, and Certegy). Notify any companies or government agencies you think may be affected that you are a victim of identity theft to avoid any additional costs that could result from the theft.
- Check if other accounts with creditors, banks, or entities have been affected. Examine your statements and bills from other businesses, organizations, or federal agencies you do business with to see if any other accounts have been affected by identity theft.
- Place a Fraud Alert on Your Credit Report. When you file a fraud alert, it places a note on your credit report that informs a lender that there may be fraud involved with your credit and requires them to take additional steps to verify your identity before opening a new account, issuing an additional credit card, or increasing your credit limit. You can learn more about how to put a fraud alert on your credit report on our Fraud Alerts page.
- File an Identity Theft Report with the Federal Trade Commission at http://www.identitytheft.gov. Based on the information you enter, IdentityTheft.gov will create your Identity Theft Report and recovery plan.
- Place a Security Freeze on your Credit Report. If you need to continue to guard your credit report against future fraud, a credit freeze (also called a “security freeze”) can help you protect your credit by preventing a credit bureau from providing your report to new creditors to open a new loan or account. You can learn more about how to place a security freeze on your credit report on our Credit Freeze page.