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What is Identity Theft and How Can I Prevent It?

What is Identity Theft and How Can I Prevent It?

Reading time: 6 minutes

Identity theft can happen to anyone and in fact, identity theft affects millions of Americans every year. Cybercriminals hack into databases, scammers use sophisticated phishing schemes, and the methods used to steal personal information continually evolve.

But you can reduce the risk of becoming a victim of an identity thief by taking some simple steps to protect your personal information. Here, PureTalk provides some best practices from the pros.

Concerned looking blonde woman checking her phone.

Identity Theft Defined

Identity theft happens when someone uses your personal or financial information without your permission. It can damage your credit status and cost you time and money.

Be Vigilant in Guarding Your Privacy

Identity thieves are constantly looking for new ways to obtain personal and financial data. Scammers use your personal information to apply for additional credit cards or loans, open bank accounts, set up cell phone services, and go on shopping sprees. Some identity thieves could even go so far as to give your name to the police during an arrest. Minimizing the disaster of identity theft depends primarily on your vigilance in guarding your privacy.

Who is Most at Risk for Identity Theft?

People between the ages of 30 and 39 are the most common targets of identity theft, followed by people 40 to 59 years old.

Man at the kitchen table on the phone.

How Identity Theft Happens

There are several ways that scammers can steal your identity, including in person, online, through social media, and by phone.

Scammers may: Steal your wallet or purse to get your ID, credit, or bank cards; go through your trash to retrieve bank statements or tax documents; and install skimmers at ATMs.

How to Prevent Identity Theft

You can protect yourself from identity theft and here are a few suggestions as to how.

Use only one credit card for your online purchases. Do not use a debit card. Consider opting out of most prescreened offers of credit by calling 1-888-5OPTOUT or 1-888-567-8688 or go to Those offers could be used by identity thieves who steal mail.

And speaking of mail, pick up your mail promptly and use a secure mailbox.

Shred receipts, credit offers, loan and credit applications, insurance forms, bank statements, and similar documents when you no longer need them. A “cross cut” shredder is best for this.

When you use passwords for your various online accounts, use ones that aren't easily guessed or found. Avoid using obvious passwords like "123456789," "qwerty," your mother's maiden name, the names of your children, spouse, or pets, or other personal data.

Be sure to use different passwords for each of your accounts and make sure you log out of all online accounts after you've finished your business.

Identity thieves use this sensitive information to apply for additional credit cards or loans, open bank accounts, set up cell phone services, and go on shopping sprees. Don't let them. If anyone deserves a shopping spree it's you!

Open and Read Your Bank Account and Credit Card Billing Statements Immediately

This is really important. Open your statements when you receive them. Check for unauthorized charges or withdrawals and report any immediately by phone and in writing.

Also, if you receive bills and financial statements by mail, be aware of when they normally arrive each month. Call the credit card company if they don't arrive on time.

If you ever access your bank account over a public Wi-Fi network, like in a coffee shop or library, you may be putting yourself at risk. It's probably best to not access sensitive information, such as your bank account, on a public Wi-Fi network—you never know who may be watching. In all honesty, don't do this. Leave your banking for when you're at home.

You can determine if someone is using your identity by closely monitoring bills, credit reports, and financial accounts to see if there's any activity you didn't initiate.

Get Bank Alerts

Most banks or other financial institutions will send you automatic alerts if they detect fraud, unusual login attempts, or wire transfer scams — you just need to set them up. Do it, as they go a long way to prevent identity theft.

Monitor Your Credit Reports Regularly

Before you can monitor your credit reports, you need to get them. Here's how:

Order your free annual credit reports by phone, toll-free at 1-877-322-8228, or online at

If your Social Security number or other sensitive information was stolen, consider placing a credit freeze on your files with each of the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion).

This will prevent a thief from opening up accounts in your name and ruining your credit.

Also, ask the three major credit bureaus to place fraud alerts and a credit freeze on your accounts.

The fraud department at your credit card issuers, bank, and other places where you have accounts is the place to contact.

Protect Your Personal Documents

Paper documents with personal information are a goldmine that could allow a fraudster to steal valuable personal or financial information. Don't make it easier for them to access your paper documents.

Safeguard Your Documents and Prevent Identity Theft

Shred documents that contain personal information, financial data or both. This includes bank statements, credit card statements and bills. Shred, shred, shred.

Watch for IRS Scams

The IRS doesn't initiate contact with taxpayers by email, text messages, or social media to ask for personal or financial information like PIN numbers, passwords, or similar access information for credit cards, banks, or other financial accounts. If you think they're trying to contact you, contact them.

While there's no guaranteed way to completely prevent identity theft, using an identity theft protection service can help you protect yourself from identity theft. LifeLock and Equifax offer one-stop credit monitoring and identity theft protection.

These can provide protection against identity fraud and give you added peace of mind knowing that you can get assistance in restoring your identity in the event that something goes wrong.

Warning Signs of Identity Theft

You may not know that you experienced ID theft immediately. Beware of:

Bills for items you did not buy. Debt collection calls for accounts you did not open. Purchases you didn't make showing up on your credit card. Accounts you have no memory of opening appearing on your credit report.

Older couple looking with concern at a laptop.

How to Report Identity Theft

You can report identity theft to the FTC, which will help prove to businesses that someone stole your identity.

You also have the right to place a one- or seven-year fraud alert on your credit report, request that fraudulent information is removed from your report, and stop debt collectors from contacting you.

To report identity theft, contact: The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) online at or call 1-877-438-4338.

Older woman looking at her credit card.

If you need help straightening out your finances, dealing with debt collection agencies, or getting credit bureaus to remove fraudulent information from your credit reports after an identity thief opens new accounts in your name, consider talking to an identity theft attorney, debt settlement attorney, or a consumer protection attorney.

Don't feel you should be able to handle the situation on your own. Identity theft is stressful and frightening. If you need assistance, see an attorney.

From all of us at PureTalk, stay safe online and protect your personal information. We may be a big wireless company, but we're people too - and we really do care.

Posted 3 weeks ago