Identity Theft Is Getting More Sophisticated: How to Protect Yourself

Identity Theft
Identity Theft

"Identity Thief," the new movie with "Arrested Development"'s Jason Bateman and "Bridesmaids"' Melissa McCarthy, follows a victim's attempt to bring to justice the woman who steals his identity. Hilarity ensues -- and the only price is the cost of the ticket and two hours of your time.

But in the real world, identity theft is far more complicated and far less funny. In the past five years, according to author and identity theft expert Steve Weisman, 27.3 million Americans were victims of identity theft: 52% of them learned of the fraud through self-monitoring credit reports; 26% were alerted by their banks; and 8% found that they were breached when they were turned down for credit.

Savvy identity thieves are engaging in more sophisticated crimes than simply stealing money or opening new credit cards in other people's names: They have used stolen identities to gain access to medical care or immigration status, or even to evade arrests. Victims may not know they've been targeted until their medical records are compromised (resulting in inaccurate care) or they get arrested for crimes they didn't commit.

Identity thieves can be family members, career criminals, or people who have never even had a parking ticket. Weisman, an identity theft victim who went on to write "50 Ways to Protect Your Identity in a Digital Age," says that although we may take precautions, we're never as safe as we think we are. Keeping your identity secure, Weisman says, requires being able to outwit the fraudsters.

Simple Steps to Outwit the Criminals

When it comes to password-protecting your information, sometimes all it takes is a few clicks to crack your personal code. "Most people would be surprised at how much personal information is available online," Weisman says, and how easy it is to hack into email or Facebook accounts.

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Weisman points out that when Sarah Palin's email was hacked in 2008, it was done so by using publicly available information like her high school and birth date. "Pets' names, children's names, college mascots... answers to the most common security questions are usually very easy to find," he says.

For an extra layer of protection to online accounts, Weisman recommends adding a twist to passwords and security questions. "Keep it simple. Don't answer the security questions with real information. If they ask your favorite sports team, write 'blue,' or something that you'll know but no one else would guess."

Weisman offers the following advice for keeping your identity protected:

  • Don't store credit card information online for one-click shopping.

  • Don't ever use a social media account like Facebook to log in to other sites.

  • Don't open links from friends without knowing exactly what the links are, as some links hide keystroke software.

  • Don't access online banking accounts or other personal information on open networks like coffee shop or airport WiFi.

  • Regularly scrutinize your credit card and banking account statements for any stray charges -- even those as small a dollar. A little charge may be a test to see if you notice before larger charges are made.

  • Put a freeze on your credit report; it only takes 24 hours to remove if necessary.

  • Use passcodes on smartphones and personal devices.

Protect Yourself From Companies You Do Business With

Unfortunately, keeping your personal Fort Knox locked down isn't enough. Be aware that the companies you do business with may not properly screen or train their employees. "All it takes is one person to improperly dispose of records with credit card or social security information on [them], or one company to overlook a background check, and your information is compromised."

Weisman says to avoid giving out Social Security numbers simply because you're asked, like in a doctor's office. "Many doctors' offices will ask for your Social, but they don't really need it. Leave the line blank or say you don't have it on you."

Within the home, store personal information, mail, bank account statements, and other information out of common areas. In Washington, D.C., a female police officer went to take a report at the apartment of an Alzheimer's patient who had been the victim of fraud. The officer was later arrested for stealing the woman's checkbook and cashing several checks to herself.

Resources for Identity Theft Victims

People who suspect they've been a victim of identity theft should immediately contact all of their banking institutions and obtain a free copy of their credit report. If identity theft has occurred, file a complaint with the FTC by calling 877-ID-THEFT or The information will be shared nationwide with law enforcement officials.