Information Theft is on the Rise. People are Particularly Vulnerable after Natural Disasters
Cora Lewis READ TIME: 3 MIN.
Information theft is on the rise. Over 1.1 million people in the U.S. alone reported the crime to the Federal Trade Commission in 2022. When a thief opens accounts in your name or otherwise uses your data, you might feel powerless. But there are steps you can take to prevent the worst outcomes.
Colleen Tressler, a senior project manager for the FTC, has tracked consumer issues including identity theft for more than three decades. She said frauds and scams often emerge during specific emergencies such as the COVID pandemic, and in the wake of climate-related catastrophes.
"They're imposters, so they're going after your personal information and your financial information however they can," she said. "They'll relate it to anything in their deck of cards – to COVID, to the weather."
People in a heightened emotional state in the wake of a wildfire or hurricane should be extra careful of impersonators asking for identifying details, Tressler said. Scammers might pretend to be from the utility company or the Federal Emergency Management Agency and ask to "verify information."
"If someone uses that phrase, ask them why they need that, and contact the company or agency directly," Tressler said. "They should have that information."
In the fall, when student loan payments resume, Tressler cautions that borrowers should be wary of anyone claiming to be a debt servicer and asking for private information. For example, your actual student loan servicer will never ask for your Federal Student Aid ID or your password, and neither will the Department of Education. You also never have to pay a third party to contact your servicer. The Federal Student Aid site provides more guidance about avoiding identity theft online.
Medical ID theft and tax ID theft are also common, especially during tax season or Medicare re-enrollment periods.
"Scammers are after your money," she said. "But very often your identity can be just as valuable."
If you believe your personal information has been compromised, you should first go to IdentityTheft.gov, where the FTC will provide you with an individualized recovery plan. Prompts and questions will ask you what the thief has used your information for – whether opening credit card accounts, getting car loans or leases in your name, or filing for government benefits.
"They could open debit, checking, or savings accounts, utility accounts, get Social Security, Medicare, or a drivers license," Tressler said. "Insurance or medical accounts too."
Here are step by step instructions to keep in mind when it comes to identity theft:
How Can You Tell if Your Identity has been Stolen?
It can take time to realize your data has been stolen. According to the FTC, signs include:
– Bills for things you didn't buy
– Debt collection calls for accounts you didn't open
– Inaccurate information on your credit report
– Denial of loan applications
– Mail that stops coming to, or is missing from, your mailbox
– A phone, electricity, or gas account opened in your name
– A missing tax refund or government benefits
– Medical bills or insurance charges for procedures you didn't have
If you notice any of the above, here's what to do next:
First, Report the Theft
– The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) online at IdentityTheft.gov or call 1-877-438-4338.
– The three major credit reporting agencies – Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian. Ask them to place fraud alerts and a credit freeze on your accounts to prevent further misuse of your data.
– The fraud department at your credit card issuers, bank, and other places where you have accounts, such as a medical insurance account.
By acting quickly, you can prevent consequences to your credit score and financial health. False information on your credit report can cause lasting damage if not addressed promptly. After you've done the above, continue to review credit card and bank account statements. Watch for and report any unauthorized or suspicious transactions.
Next, Secure Your Data and Information
The FTC recommends everyone do the following to keep your personal identity safe:
– Never share your bank account number or Social Security number, especially over the phone to unknown callers or via email or text.
– Collect your mail every day and place a hold on your mail when you'll be on vacation or away.
– Store personal information, including your Social Security card, in a safe place. Do not carry it in your wallet.