21 Warning Signs of Identity Theft: How To Avoid Fraud

February 14, 2024


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    How Can You Tell If Someone Is Trying to Steal Your Identity?

    Identity theft is one of the fastest-growing crimes in America. In 2022 alone, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) received 1.1 million reports of identity theft — making up 22% of all fraud reports received [*].

    From traditional scams like mail theft and shoulder surfing to sophisticated cyber attacks, hacking, and data breaches, criminals have more ways than ever to access your personal information and steal your identity.

    The good news: These scams are relatively easy to shut down once you notice the signs of identity theft.

    The bad news: Most people only recognize the red flags after a fraudster has done serious damage to their credit, assets, and reputation.

    There’s no way to permanently protect yourself from identity theft. However, cybersecurity experts agree that being alert and acting quickly can prevent you from becoming a victim.

    So, what warning signs of identity theft should you be on the lookout for?

    Identity Thieves Need Your Personal Information — Here’s How They Get It

    Identity theft occurs when someone steals and uses your personally identifiable information (PII) to commit fraud or other scams. PII includes data like your name, home address, passwords, Social Security number (SSN), account numbers, and credit card details.

    With even just a few of these details, a scammer can access your bank account, open new loans and credit cards in your name, or even steal your medical benefits.

    So, how do criminals gain access to your information in the first place?

    Here are a few of the ways that scammers try to steal your PII:

    • Data breaches on the Dark Web. Companies from Facebook to T-Mobile, Equifax, and more have been “breached” by hackers who sell personal information on the Dark Web. In some cases, a valid U.S driver's license can be purchased for as little as $150 [*].
    • Phishing emails, texts, or calls. Identity thieves often use phishing emails, calls, or texts (called smishing) to trick people into giving up personal and financial information. These messages look legitimate and appear to come from someone you trust — such as a bank, online retailer, or friend. But any information you supply to the scammer can be used to steal your identity.
    • Malware and hacking. Hackers will often try to trick you into clicking on a link or downloading an attachment that infects your device with malware. This “malicious software” searches for your sensitive information and can even share every keystroke you make with the scammer (such as when you’re entering passwords). Hackers can also hack Wi-Fi networks to intercept your data (such as credit card numbers).
    • Shoulder surfing. Some scammers will wait in public to try and spy on you as you access your online accounts or enter your credit card information and PIN.
    • Physical theft. Identity thieves can also get your personal and financial information by stealing your wallet or purse, or emptying out your mailbox. They look for credit cards, bank documents, passports, identification cards, authentication tokens, and other sensitive information.

    📚 Related: How To Protect Your Personal Information Online and In Real Life

    21 Warning Signs of Identity Theft: How To Spot a Scammer

    1. Unfamiliar charges on your bank statements
    2. New credit cards or loans in your name
    3. Fraud alerts from your bank or credit monitoring service
    4. Unfamiliar hard inquiries on your credit report
    5. You’re denied new credit
    6. A sudden drop in your credit score
    7. Strange calls or letters from debt collectors
    8. Notice of a tax return in your name
    9. You receive tax forms regarding unfamiliar jobs
    10. There’s a warrant out for your arrest
    11. You receive unfamiliar medical bills in the mail
    12. You’ve hit your limit on health benefits
    13. Someone steals your wallet or ID
    14. Your bills and other mail go missing
    15. Strange packages arrive at your home
    16. Your utilities are shut off
    17. You’re locked out of your email
    18. You receive unprompted login verification emails
    19. You’re alerted of a potential data breach
    20. A slew of spam emails and robocalls
    21. Your child is denied government benefits

    If you see any of these warning signs, you could be at risk of identity theft. Here's what to look out for and what to do:

    1. Unfamiliar charges on your bank statements

    The goal for most identity thieves is simple: steal enough information to get into victims’ bank accounts and empty them. Financial identity fraud can cause serious damage and take months or even years to recover from.

    As soon as you get your monthly account statements (or credit card statements), review them carefully for unfamiliar transactions, strange withdrawals, or other suspicious activity.

    What to do if you notice unfamiliar bank charges:

    Report any unfamiliar charge or withdrawal to your bank’s fraud department immediately. You may also be able to set a transaction limit so that you’ll get an alert if anyone tries to take out a large amount of money from your account.

    If you’ve been the victim of financial fraud (or any type of identity fraud), follow the steps in the fraud victim’s recovery plan.

    📚 Related: Do You Really Need Identity Theft Protection?

    2. New credit cards or loans in your name

    Scammers will try to take out credit in your name and leave you with the bill. If you discover loans or credit cards in your name that you don’t remember signing up for, this is a major warning sign of identity theft.

    Card issuers and lenders will almost always notify you of new accounts via letter, email, or phone call. However, scammers have learned to circumvent this process by using a different address on the application or even submitting a change-of-address request in your name with the USPS (United States Postal Service).

    This is why regularly monitoring your credit report is so important.

    What to do if a new credit card or loan was issued in your name:

    Go to AnnualCreditReport.com and order a free credit report from the three major credit agencies — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. If you notice unfamiliar requests for a new line of credit, contact your bank or credit card company right away to inform them of identity theft.

    3. Fraud alerts from your bank or credit monitoring service

    Your bank or credit card issuer might send you an alert about potential fraud. Don’t ignore these. Financial institutions spend millions of dollars on fraud detection and prevention to protect your accounts.  

    However, never blindly trust text messages or emails claiming to be from your bank. Scammers will sometimes send phishing texts claiming your account has been compromised. But when you enter your account information, you’re really giving the scammer access to your funds.

    What to do if you get a fraud alert from your bank:

    Contact your bank directly using the phone number on the back of your card or the one listed on their official website. Ask to speak to the fraud department, and they’ll take you through the necessary steps to secure your account.

    Zoom out: Sign up for a credit monitoring service that will check for fraud and suspicious activity. Services like Aura and Identity Guard will monitor your bank account, credit reports, and credit cards and alert you in near-real time if there are any signs of fraud.

    4. Hard credit inquiries on your credit report that you didn’t request

    A hard inquiry is made when a lender or company checks your credit history before giving you a loan. Since you only initiate each hard inquiry when doing things like applying for a new credit card or a mortgage, you should be familiar with each one that appears on your credit report.

    If you see any unfamiliar hard inquiries, someone else may be using your information to apply for credit or a loan.

    What to do if you see unfamiliar hard inquiries on your credit report:

    Contact your bank and credit card company to inform them that someone's using your identity. You’ll also need to contact the credit reporting bureaus to remove fraudulent information and repair your credit score. You might also want to consider freezing your credit to prevent further fraud.

    5. You’re denied new credit

    Sometimes, you may not notice that your identity has been stolen until you apply for a new line of credit or a loan. If you’re 99% sure you should have been qualified for the loan and then get rejected, this could be a sign of identity theft.

    What to do when you’re denied credit:

    First, review your credit report for any suspicious activity. If you find any, contact your bank and credit card company immediately. Then, work with the credit bureaus and any impacted companies to repair your credit score.

    📚 Related: Was Your SSN Found on the Dark Web? Do This

    6. There’s a sudden drop in your credit score

    Your credit score can act as a “health check” for your financial life. If anyone has been abusing your credit, taking out new loans, or missing payments, your credit score will tell you.

    What to do if your credit score suddenly drops:

    Investigate any sudden changes in your credit score — especially if you haven’t done anything that would impact it. This could be a warning sign of identity theft, but it could also alert you to mistakes in your credit history or debts you forgot about.

    7. You get strange calls or letters from debt collectors

    If you’re getting unexpected calls or letters from collection agencies about accounts you never opened, don’t ignore them. There’s a good chance that a thief has racked up credit card bills in your name or has taken out a loan using your personal information.

    This usually happens when a fraudster steals your credit card or hacks your bank account.  

    What to do when you get hounded by debt collectors:

    The first thing to do is check your credit report for unfamiliar accounts. If you find any, contact one of the three major credit bureaus to place a fraud alert on your credit report (by law, the bureau you contact needs to inform the other two of the alert).

    Here’s how to get in touch with them:

    • Equifax: 800-525-6285 or Equifax.com
    • Experian: 888-397-3742 or Experian.com
    • TransUnion: 800-680-7289 or TransUnion.com

    Next, contact any companies or lenders where the criminal opened a fraudulent account and close the account immediately.

    📚 Related: Is Home Title Theft Real? 5 Ways To Protect Yourself

    8. The IRS informs you that someone filed a tax return in your name

    A clear sign that your identity has been stolen is when you get a notification from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) before you file your taxes.

    Scammers only need your name and SSN to file taxes in your name. They’ll often report bogus income to maximize the refund they can steal from you.

    What to do if someone filed a tax refund in your name:

    Contact the IRS at 800-829-1040 immediately. You’ll also need to file an identity theft report with the FTC at IdentityTheft.gov and your local police department.

    Sometimes, the IRS spots the fraudulent tax return before the scammer gets your refund. When they do, they’ll send you a letter with instructions on how to verify your identity and prevent criminals from filing tax returns in your name.

    9. You receive tax forms regarding unfamiliar jobs or companies

    Employment scams occur when criminals use your identity to get jobs they otherwise aren’t qualified for or wouldn’t get due to a background check. It can be incredibly difficult to identify this type of identity theft. But an unexpected tax form — such as a W-2 or 1099 — is a clear sign.

    What to do if you see signs of job or tax identity theft:

    If the IRS notices signs of fraud on your account, they could reach out to you with a Letter 4883C. This is a standard method for verifying your identity. Otherwise, you’ll need to contact the IRS immediately at 800-908-4490 (the specialized line for dealing with identity theft).

    📚 Related: What To Do If a Scammer Has Your Social Security Number

    10. There’s a warrant out for your arrest

    Someone who has access to your sensitive information could provide it to law enforcement if they’re stopped during a traffic stop or brought in for criminal activity. This could lead to the police putting out a warrant for your arrest.

    What to do if you find that there’s a warrant out for your arrest:

    Contact your local law enforcement agency with proof of your identity to show that you didn’t commit the crime. If the crime was committed in a different state, you’ll need to get in touch with the law enforcement agency there. (For example, if you live in Ohio and your identity was used in Florida, you’ll need to contact police in Florida.)

    📚 Related: How To Prevent Identity Theft Online and In Real Life

    11. You receive unfamiliar medical bills in your mail

    It's hard enough to pay your own medical bills, let alone someone else's.

    Medical identity theft is when criminals use your PII and Personal Health Information (PHI) to steal your benefits, receive medical treatments, or get prescription drugs in your name. One of the clearest signs of medical identity theft is if you start to receive strange medical bills in the mail.

    What to do if you receive strange medical bills:

    Read each medical bill carefully to make sure it matches the treatments that you received. If you see any suspicious medical claims, contact your health insurance or healthcare provider immediately.

    12. You’ve hit your limit on health benefits (without using them up)

    When scammers give a healthcare provider your personal information, they receive free medical treatment under your insurance policy. This depletes your health insurance benefits and can leave you with no coverage.

    If your health insurance company notifies you that you’ve reached your benefits limits (and you’re sure you haven’t), it’s likely a sign that someone is abusing your health insurance.

    What to do if you’ve reached your limit on health benefits:

    Carefully review your Explanation of Benefits (EOBs) and other correspondences from your health insurer and healthcare providers. If you see anything odd, such as names or treatment dates you don’t recognize, notify your health insurer and medical providers immediately.

    To keep your medical benefits safe, be sure to shred outdated medical records, insurance forms, prescription paperwork, and other documents containing your medical information before disposing of them.  

    13. Someone steals your wallet or ID

    Many of the more modern ways that criminals steal your identity rely on hacking and phishing emails. But a stolen wallet or purse can just as easily lead to identity theft. With just your ID or driver’s license, someone can hack into your bank account or run other scams.

    Even if you think you lost your wallet or ID, it’s better to treat it as if they were stolen. If you find them eventually, you’ll have a new card and know that your identity is secure.

    What to do if you lose your wallet, purse, or ID:

    Start by writing down everything that was inside your wallet and contacting each company or agency — the DMV, credit card companies, etc. Moving forward, minimize what you keep inside your wallet. Never carry your Social Security card or too many credit cards with you.

    Pro tip: Sign up for identity monitoring to keep track of your most sensitive documents. Identity Guard constantly searches for risks to your SSN and other identifying information.

    📚 Related: What Is Synthetic Identity Fraud? How To Protect Yourself

    14. Your bills and other mail go missing or stop arriving

    Mail theft (or any unexpected change to your mail delivery) is a warning sign of identity theft — especially any missing bills or financial statements.

    Sometimes, identity thieves can change your mailing address so that your bills or statements are delivered to their mailboxes. Or they can just physically rummage through your mailbox (dumpster diving) and steal documents that contain your personal information.

    In 2020, a Memphis man was sentenced to six years in federal prison when several people in different states reported seeing him remove the contents of their mailboxes [*]. He even orchestrated a change-of-address scam on one occasion to prevent a mailed check from arriving at its intended destination.

    What to do if you’re missing important mail:

    Contact your bank, insurance, and credit card companies immediately and confirm that these institutions have your correct address.

    15. Strange packages arrive at your home

    Receiving unfamiliar packages or bills in your mail likely means that someone has opened new accounts with your personal data and is using those accounts to make purchases. It could also mean that you’re the target of a “brushing scam” — in which Amazon sellers use your identity to create fake accounts and send you cheap products.

    What to do if you're receiving strange packages and bills:

    Contact the sender and inform them that someone has stolen your identity. You should also check your financial accounts for unauthorized transactions. If you find any, change your password immediately and report the crime to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

    📚 Related: Home Title Lock vs. LifeLock: Which Is Better?

    16. Your utilities are shut off

    Suddenly losing your cell phone or utility provider service can be a warning sign of identity theft. Scammers could have accessed your personal information and switched your utilities or services to a different address (while still having the bill sent to you).

    What to do if your utilities get cut off suddenly:

    Reach out to your utility provider immediately to verify your information and rectify the issue. If your cell phone service stops working, contact your provider quickly. Scammers have recently started using a type of hack called SIM swapping that allows them to take over your phone number.  

    17. You’re locked out of your email, social media, or online accounts

    If your passwords suddenly stop working for your email, social media, or any other online account, there's a chance that a thief has stolen your login details and changed the password so that you can't log back in.

    This is an especially dangerous type of identity theft as scammers can use one account to get access to others.

    That's what Kenneth Gibson did in 2018. Gibson's job as an IT professional gave him access to thousands of emails and login data. He used this personal data to open ~8,000 fraudulent accounts with PayPal and extort $3.5 million from his victims [*].

    What to do if you're locked out of an online account:

    Immediately try all the recovery options available to you. If they don't work, contact customer support to help you. Once you’re back in, look for the signs that your email or account has been hacked, such as strange posts you didn’t make or emails in your “sent” folder that you didn’t send.

    Pro tip: Listen to your friends and family. If someone comments about a strange post you made or an email they received from you, they could be referring to something that a scammer posted or sent by hacking your account.

    18. You receive suspicious login verification emails or 2FA text messages

    Two-factor Authentication (2FA) is a great way to strengthen the security of your online accounts by requiring an additional code or credential.

    If you receive an SMS containing a verification code you didn’t request, it means that someone else is trying to hack into your account. And the only thing that's stopping them from doing so is the 2FA that you enabled.  

    What to do if you receive unsolicited 2FA codes:

    Log in directly to the site or account for which you received the 2FA code, and update your password. For added security, consider switching from SMS 2FA (codes sent to your phone) to an authenticator app instead. These app tools create new 2FA codes every 30 seconds or so, which makes it much harder for a hacker to get into your account.

    19. You’re alerted of a potential data breach

    There’s a good chance that your personal information was leaked online as part of a recent data breach.

    Nearly 50% of U.S. companies suffered a data breach in the past year alone [*], with billions of PII — ranging from passwords to credit card accounts to SSNs — leaked to the Dark Web. This information can give scammers access to your email, social media, or even bank accounts.

    Even worse, according to a Google survey, only 45% of Americans say they would change their passwords after a data breach [*].

    What to do if you’re the victim of a data breach:

    The second you get the notification of the breach, update your passwords right away. If you use the same password across different sites, you need to update all of them to be unique and secure.

    A password manager can make this much easier by storing all your passwords in a secure location. Some password managers will even alert you if an account has been compromised in a data breach.  

    20. You start getting an increased amount of spam emails and robocalls

    It's easy to ignore telemarketers and robocalls marked "scam likely" on your caller ID. But if you're getting these calls a lot, it could be a sign of a bigger problem.

    Not only does it make you more vulnerable to phishing and social engineering attacks, but it means that your information is readily available to scammers and criminals.

    What to do if you receive spam calls or emails:

    The best thing you can do in response to spam calls, emails, and texts is to ignore them. Any response is enough to make you a target for identity theft and scams. You can also report scam emails and texts that claim to come from major companies or government agencies.

    For example, if you receive a scam email claiming to be from the IRS, you can forward the full email to phishing@irs.gov. Most government agencies and companies will have a similar email address you can use. If you’re reporting a spam call or text message, be sure to also include:

    • The phone number from which you were called or messaged.
    • The number you were instructed to call back.
    • A brief description of the conversation or message.

    In all cases, don’t use phone numbers given out during unsolicited calls. Instead, always reach out through the official numbers and communication channels listed on a company or agency’s website.

    21. Your child is denied government benefits (child identity theft)

    Identity theft can happen to your children as well as to you. More than 1.25 million children were the victims of child identity theft in America last year [*]. Many of the signs of child identity theft go unnoticed for years and only surface when a child is later denied government benefits, unable to get a driver’s license, or can’t obtain student loans.

    If you apply for government benefits (like health care) for your child and you're rejected, it's possible that someone is using your child's SSN.

    What to do if you see signs of child identity theft:

    The best thing you can do to protect against child identity theft is to freeze your children’s credit. This will stop scammers from using your children’s clean credit scores to take out debt in their names.

    You can also contact the Social Security Administration (SSA) to check if your child’s SSN is being used elsewhere, such as for tax purposes pertaining to a fraudulent job, or to receive government benefits.

    Do These Warning Signs of Identity Theft Sound Familiar? Do This:

    If you suspect that a criminal has stolen your identity, follow these steps:

    • Immediately freeze your credit with the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion).
    • Report the crime to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) at identitytheft.gov — and file a police report at your local law enforcement agency for identity theft.
    • Review your credit card and bank statements, and request a free credit report at annualcreditreport.com to look for suspicious charges.
    • Update your online accounts with secure passwords and store them in a password manager.
    • Enable two-factor authentication (2FA) on all your online accounts with authenticator apps like Google and Authy (not SMS).
    • Use a Dark Web scanner to check if your account details and passwords have been compromised in data breaches.
    • Replace all lost or stolen government-issued IDs — including ID cards, driver's licenses, and passports.
    • Sign up for a credit monitoring tool to alert you of suspicious activity on your bank accounts. For example, Identity Guard scans your bank accounts for fraudulent activities and notifies you in near real-time if someone is using your information.

    The Bottom Line: Secure Your Identity

    The warning signs of identity theft are obvious in hindsight. But no one has the time or energy to constantly monitor financial accounts, online passwords, and PII.

    That’s where an identity theft protection service like Identity Guard comes in.

    Identity Guard protects your personal information and financial accounts with 24/7 credit monitoring and lightning-fast fraud notifications. And if the worst happens, you’re covered with a $1,000,000 insurance policy for eligible losses due to identity theft.

    Special offer: Save 33% on your Identity Guard membership.

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    1. Financial identity theft and fraud
    2. Medical identity theft
    3. Child identity theft
    4. Elder fraud and estate identity theft
    5. “Friendly” or familial identity theft
    6. Employment identity theft
    7. Criminal identity theft
    8. Tax identity theft
    9. Unemployment and government benefits identity theft
    10. Synthetic identity theft
    11. Identity cloning
    12. Account takeovers (social media, email, etc.)
    13. Social Security number identity theft
    14. Biometric ID theft
    15. Crypto account takeovers