Identity theft: What it is, how to prevent, types and warning signs

Ruheni Mathenge Last updated: October 13, 2022 Read time: 13 minutes Disclosure

identity theft has always existed, but the internet has brought it to a whole new level in which everybody becomes a potential victim. This article explains everything an average user needs to know on this subject.

Sneak peek at identity theft and its protection

The brave new digital world affords us many incredible gifts but creates new problems too. Identity theft is one of those problems. Identity theft occurs when someone poses as you illegally, usually for financial gain. Of course, it’s a problem that already existed in the analog world, but the internet gave it steroids. Identity theft occurs when someone poses as you illegally, usually for financial gain. So identifying its warning signs and preventing it is essential today.

The act of identity theft involves someone taking advantage of your private information, such as your Social Security number, name, birthdate, etc., to impersonate you. In most cases, they use this data to steal from you.

The problem is on the rise worldwide, and pandemic relief worsened in the U.S. as identity thieves pounced on unemployment benefits and relief checks.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission says that over two million citizens in the America alone fell prey to ID theft in 2020. And the situation in Europe was every bit as bad, with 20% of the citizens also feeling the sting of stolen identities. It’s the second kind of fraud by frequency in the EU.

The usual targets for identity theft tend to be senior citizens and minors. The criminals know their craft and regard these groups as the easiest to exploit. It’s easier to squeeze out of them the information you need to usurp their identity. But make no mistake: Everybody is vulnerable, and identity theft can happen to anyone.

Join us as your read this article, and allow us to tell you how it works, how you can protect yours, and what you can do if you become a victim.

Identity theft: What is it, anyway?

Also named “identity fraud,” identity theft happens whenever a person acquires enough information about another individual to pass for him. Once the wrongdoer has managed to impersonate the victim, he can loot money, obtain credits on the victim’s behalf, remain hidden, and buy services. Getting a new job is not out of the question either.

Identity theft comes in two flavors: credit and non-credit. Let’s have a closer look at both types and their subtypes.

Credit ID theft

  • Account takeover. In this scenario, the login credentials are vital information to steal. Once gathered, the criminal can use the victim’s accounts as their owner. To make things worse, he can change the email addresses and other security information so that the victim has a harder time realizing what’s happening. The additional time gained in that fashion allows the damage to grow.
  • Synthetic ID theft. Again, the critical information is the SSN. The criminal builds a new personality, associating a false name, birth, and address. Then the usual happens new accounts, new debit cards, and purchases. This is much harder to trace, so it’s expanding faster than the other frauds on our list.
  • True name ID theft. The SSN is the key here. It allows a criminal to adopt your identity entirely. Then he can open accounts, get loans, and do other things in the victim’s name. This type of fraud is becoming harder to perpetrate thanks to credit monitoring, credit freezes, and fraud alerts, but it can still happen.

Non-credit ID theft

  • Medical ID theft. The criminal goes for the victim’s health insurance member number. The result is that a bad medical history becomes attached to your identity. That can ruin your chances of future coverage. This fraud doesn’t involve financial operations directly, so it’s harder to detect unless unrecognized medical bills pile up.
  • IRS ID theft. And we are back with an impersonation that starts with the SSN. A tax return reaches the IRS (the criminal is to thank). This return won’t have your name, only your number. You will remain unaware but not for long. You will get notified about numerous filed returns –the IRS knows how to do its job. It’s hard to detect because only the IRS intervention can make you aware when this is happening.
  • Criminal ID theft. A Driver’s license number is at the center of this one. The criminal creates false identification cards featuring your data but his picture. Something else must happen to give the criminal’s game away, like a traffic violation or to find out that warrants are issued against you.

How are the criminals getting the information?

Identity fraud practitioners have many resources to secure the information they need to perpetrate a crime.

  • Mail theft. Very low-tech but effective. The criminal visits your mailbox, steals your letters, and gets information from unopened mail documents.
  • Phishing. Phishing is a series of digital techniques designed to trick victims into surrendering vital information voluntarily. It exploits the victim’s trust in institutions or individuals the phisher impersonates.
  • Dumpster diving. Going through a person’s garbage is a time-honored investigation technique long-honored by criminals and law enforcement agents alike. However, your boxes and cans are not all you throw away. You also throw away things that include essential data.
  • Shoulder surfing. That’s right. Good old rubber-necking works when you’re entering your information into your device in public.
  • Hacking. A hacker sets up a MITM attack. The most common places for this are public WiFi hotspots, a hacker’s wet dream. The attack allows the hacker to intercept your traffic. He can figure out all you did in a session if it’s not encrypted.

Tips for protection from identity theft

Before we talk about the measures you can take to protect your identity from thieves, let us tell you this: digital security has no silver bullets. In this arena, nothing is ever 100% effective.

So even with the utmost care, you can’t guarantee it will never happen to you. But even in that context, being aware and acting accordingly can dramatically reduce the probability of something like this happening to you. So without further ado, let’s talk about what you can do to protect yourself from the world’s identity thieves.