We all hope never to become victims of identity theft, but the fact is that cyber criminals target millions of Americans every year, making it one of the fastest growing crimes in the United States.
In fact, according to a recent analysis by the Ponemon Institute, one in two American adults has had personal data exposed by hackers in 2014. That often includes names, credit/debit card numbers, banking information, email addresses, physical addresses, social security numbers and/or dates of birth, giving criminals more than enough information to steal victims' identities. In fact, your name and credit card number could be for sale on the black market right this minute.
So how do you know if you have become a victim of identity theft? It's important to keep a close eye on your creditworthiness. If it suddenly changes, it may be because a crook has opened up a line of credit in your name and is busy wracking up debt. Every adult in the U.S. is entitled to one free credit report a year from the three major credit bureaus - Experian, TransUnion and Equifax.
However, in the age of major data breaches and increasingly sophisticated hacking attacks, checking your credit annually is no longer enough. Consider investing in a credit monitoring service to monitor your profile all year. While such services cannot guarantee your protection against identity theft, they can alert you to certain activity that may indicate credit fraud. This allows you to take aggressive steps to stop the criminals before they can do too much damage under your name, such as freezing your credit and contacting your bank.
If you do become a victim of identity theft, it is important to take certain steps to restore your credit and guard your financial assets. If you notice fraudulent spending on your debit or credit card, immediately contact your bank. The period of minimum liability for debit accounts is relatively short - wait too long and you could be on the hook for the charges. Credit cards carry a maximum of $50 fraud liability for consumers, which is why it can be safer to use them for purchases rather than debit cards.
If you see errors on your credit report, you'll need to contact the credit reporting companies and the fraud department of the company where the charge was made. Once you have filed an Identity Theft Report, the credit bureaus will expunge the debts from your record.
This is a very labor-intensive process, and the more charges a thief has made under your name, the more burdensome it is. Save yourself the time and headache by regularly monitoring for signs of potentially fraudulent changes.