Definition

identity theft

Contributor(s): Taina Teravainen

Identity theft, also known as identity fraud, is a crime in which an imposter obtains key pieces of personally identifiable information, such as Social Security or driver's license numbers, in order to impersonate someone else.

The information can be used to obtain credit, merchandise and services in the name of the victim, or to provide the thief with false credentials. In addition to running up debt, in rare cases, an imposter might provide false identification to police, creating a criminal record or leaving outstanding arrest warrants for the person whose identity has been stolen.

Types and examples of identity theft

Identity theft is categorized two ways: true name and account takeover. True-name identity theft means the thief uses personal information to open new accounts. The thief might open a new credit card account, establish cellular phone service or open a new checking account in order to obtain blank checks.

Account-takeover identity theft means the imposter uses personal information to gain access to the person's existing accounts. Typically, the thief will change the mailing address on an account and run up a huge bill before the person whose identity has been stolen realizes there is a problem. The internet has made it easier for an identity thief to use the information they've stolen, because transactions can be made without any personal interaction.

There are many different examples of identity theft, such as:

  • Tax-related identity theft, where a thief files a false tax return with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) using a stolen Social Security number.
  • Medical identity theft, where a thief steals information, including health insurance member numbers, to receive medical services. The victim's health insurance provider may get the fraudulent bills, which will be reflected in the victim's account as services they received.
  • Child identity theft, where a child's Social Security number is misused to apply for government benefits, open bank accounts and other services. Children's information is often sought after by criminals, as the damage may go unnoticed for a long time.
  • Senior identity theft, where a senior is the target of an identity thief. Seniors are often in contact with medical professionals and insurance providers, and may be used to giving out their personal information. They may also not be as aware of the scamming methods thieves use to steal their information.

Identity theft techniques

Although an identity thief might hack into a database to obtain personal information, experts say it's more likely the thief would obtain information by using old-fashioned methods. Dumpster diving, or retrieving personal paperwork and discarded mail from public trash dumpsters and the trash of businesses, is one of the easiest ways for an identity thief to get information. Recipients of preapproved credit card applications often discard them without shredding them first, leaving identity thieves free to attempt activating the cards and using them.

Another popular method to get information is shoulder surfing: The identity thief simply stands next to someone in a public venue, such the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, and observes as the person fills out personal information on a form or conveys it over the telephone.


Steps to take for identity theft.

Phishing and spam email are used as methods of tricking people into offering up their information to identity thieves masquerading as legitimate financial entities, a colleague the recipient trusts or an individual who makes monetary promises in exchange for information. The email may contain attachments bearing malware designed to steal personal data or links to fraudulent websites where the person would be prompted to enter their information.

How to tell if your identity has been stolen

Here are some warning signs that a person may be an identity theft victim:

  • Victim notices withdrawals from their bank account that weren't made by them.
  • Victim doesn't receive bills or other important pieces of mail containing sensitive information.
  • Victim finds false accounts and charges on their credit report.
  • Victim is rejected from a health plan because their medical records reflect a condition they don't have.
  • Victim receives an Internal Revenue Service notification that another tax return was filed under their name.
  • Victim is notified of a data breach at a company that stores their personal information.

If a person has lost or has had his wallet containing bank cards, driver's license and other forms of identification stolen, it is possible their information may end up being used to commit identity theft.

Identity theft recovery

Depending on the type of information stolen, the victim should contact the appropriate organization -- the bank, credit card company, health insurance provider or the IRS -- and inform them of the situation. The victim should request to have their account frozen or closed to prevent further charges, claims or actions taken by imposters. The identity theft victim should file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission and inform one of the three major credit bureaus -- Equifax, Experian and TransUnion -- in order to have a fraud alert or account freeze placed on their credit records.

If someone's personal information was compromised in a data breach, they should follow up with the company responsible to see what types of assistance and protections it may have in place for victims and their data.

Preventing identity theft

To prevent identity theft, experts recommend that individuals regularly check credit reports with major credit bureaus, pay attention to billing cycles and follow up with creditors if bills do not arrive on time.

Additionally, people should destroy unsolicited credit applications, watch out for unauthorized transactions on account statements, avoid carrying Social Security cards or numbers around and not give out any personal information in response to unsolicited email.

Prevent identity theft
This was last updated in April 2017

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