We sat down with Sheba Wallish of SHERPA® Identity Protection and Brenda Walker of the Pennsylvania Credit Union Association to discuss how you can protect yourself from scams. In that conversation, we learned more about one type of scam that’s particularly insidious — identity theft.

Identity theft is the fraudulent acquisition of your PII for the thief’s personal gain.

Wallish defined such cases as “the fraudulent acquisition of your personally identifiable information (PII) for the thief’s personal gain.” If you’re one of the 15.4 million Americans that were victims of an identity theft scam in 2016, you’ll attest to the life-alerting effects it can have.

“The problem is that you’re left sorting out the mess,” Walker said. “You’re dealing with contacting these companies, proving it wasn’t you, proving you didn’t have that surgery. Your credit can even be compromised because of it.”

Luckily, identity theft just happens to be the specialty of our two guests. With their help, we’ll explore what ID theft is, what scammers are after, and how you can protect yourself.

Identity Theft: Stealing Your Good Name

As we mentioned, identity theft is when someone takes your personal or financial information so they can assume your identity. It can be stressful and potentially crippling to fall victim to. It takes more than 40 days on average to discover that your information has been compromised. In this time, thieves can do a lot of damage to your credit or finances.

There are many ways that thieves can get your PII. Data breaches are highly publicized, but they’re not the only avenue thieves use. Other methods include stealing your health insurance card.

I wouldn’t have always considered that as valuable as a credit card, but they can now make false claims in your name. – Brenda Walker

The jackpot prize for thieves is your Social Security number, which they can sell or use for a wide range of tasks.

“With just your Social Security number, thieves can file a tax claim and gain your refund before you even know what’s going on,” Wallish said.

What Are They After?

Scammers will aim for whatever bits of PII they can get. While social security numbers are the Holy Grail of PII, bank or medical information will do.

“It’s important to talk about medical fraud,” Walker shared. “When you go to the doctor’s office or hospital, they have all your information: your Social Security number, your address, your financial information. It’s all there.”

Thieves target any information they can use to impersonate someone.

All they really need is your Social Security number. If they have your social security number and a valid address… they’re going to be able to do what they want. – Brenda Walker

That’s why your Social Security number is so prized. There’s just so much you can do with it. Any of your PII is valuable to identity thieves, though.

“They want [your information] to create and make purchases in your name or create new accounts,” Walker said. “With the right information, they are able to create a new credit card and make purchases that way.”

Your information can also be sold on the dark web. There are many profitable options for identity thieves, which is why identity theft is the fastest-growing crime in America.

How to Protect Yourself

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to 100% guard yourself from ID theft.

“Nothing can fully prevent identity theft,” Wallish warned. “Look at data breaches. You’ve done nothing wrong. A company that you do business with had an intrusion, and your information was captured.”

Vigilance is an important attribute for anyone looking to avoid identity theft.

That doesn’t mean there’s no hope. There are ways you can lessen your chances of becoming a victim. Vigilance is an important attribute for anyone looking to avoid identity theft. This means not giving your information out to scammers and properly disposing of sensitive documents.

“Don’t carry your Social Security card in your wallet,” Wallish told us. “That used to be the thing to do, but there’s no reason to keep that with you. Also, shredding you mail can protect your personal information.”

Knowing how to spot ID theft is even more important, since it’s so difficult to prevent. This is where your vigilance becomes essential. You should examine your financial statements and bills along with monitoring your credit report annually. These reports can all show signs of theft.

Your financial statements, bills, and annual credit report can all show signs of identity theft.

“If you receive new account information for a credit card that you didn’t apply for or notices in the mail for products you didn’t ask for, you need to investigate,” Walker added.

You can get help in monitoring your PII with identity theft protection companies like SHERPA®. Such services watch your credit score, track the dark web for your information, and send you updates if something goes wrong. They will also watch for your PII being used under a different identity.

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Identity theft can put a hold on your life, ruining your hard-earned credit and sapping your bank account. You’ve worked hard to build a good name for yourself, so understanding the dangers of ID theft is important.

You’ve worked hard to build a good name for yourself, so understanding the dangers of ID theft is important.

Thanks to SHERPA® Identity Protection for educating us on this growing threat.

Further Reading

Investopedia — Identity Theft
The Shop & Enroll Blog — *Are You Being Scammed? Telltale Signs to Look For