If it feels like cases of identity theft and cyber attacks are occurring far more regularly than they ever have before, there’s a good reason for that: they are. And more and more consumers across the United States are beginning to feel those effects, so much so that identity theft has become the fastest growing complaint cited by American consumers in the past year.
That’s according to the 2014 Consumer Complaints Survey, conducted by the Consumer Federation of American (CFA) and North American Consumer Protection Investigators (NACPI). Although automobile, home repair and credit card schemes stayed on top of the list as they had in past years, the pace with which identity theft has climbed those ranks poses an alarmingly increasing threat to the average American. These cases can run the gamut from credit fraud and data breaches to tax return fraud, which in and of itself has been noted “as a particularly fast-growing and troublesome problem,” according to Financial Advisor Magazine.
“Government benefits fraud resulting from identity theft makes it very difficult for the victims to claim benefits that are rightfully theirs,” said Amber Capoun, president of the NACPI.
Compounding this problem is the growing “epidemic of data breaches” that have spiked in both frequency and impact over just the last 18 months. Major enterprises, from retail chains (Target) and health insurance companies (Anthem) to universities (Harvard), hospitals (UCLA Medical Center) and even the federal government (Office of Personnel Management) have fallen victim to hackers and cyber thieves in a relatively short amount of time. As a result, the personal information of tens of millions of Americans — including names, addresses, birthdays, Social Security Numbers, credit card numbers, bank account numbers and much more — has become compromised, sold on the black market to identity thieves, who then use this private data to take out loans, open new lines of credit or fraudulently claim tax returns in their victims’ names.
“It’s clear that more needs to be done to address ID theft ,” said Susan Grant, the CFA’s director of consumer protection. “Considering the epidemic of data breaches that we’ve been experiencing in the last year, it’s not surprising that more consumers are contacting state or local consumer agencies for help to resolve the problems that identity theft can cause.”
While there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to stopping identity theft from happening, just awareness of the crime and the red flags to look out for can go a long way. To reduce your chances of becoming the latest consumer to file a complaint about identity fraud, keep these tips in mind:
- Set social media privacy settings to keep prying eyes from getting a look at your birth date, home address or other seemingly innocuous pieces of personal information that can be used to steal your identity.
- Be careful of who you give your Social Security Number to. If another party — such as a school, doctor’s office or hiring manager — requests your SSN, double check with them if they really need it, if you can give alternative pieces of information instead or, if they do need it, what steps they take to ensure it’s being adequately protected.
- Check your credit reports. Every American is entitled to one free credit report a year from each of the three major credit reporting bureaus. Use these reports to regularly inspect your credit history for any suspicious or fraudulent charges occurring in your name.
With a credit monitoring services at your disposal, you can be alerted to certain activity on your credit file that may be evidence of identity theft.