Like millions of Americans, you’re probably spending more time online. The extra screen time keeps you connected, but it can also pose a higher risk of identity theft, as scammers take advantage of people doing more of their work, shopping, and schooling online.
ID theft can include account takeover fraud, where a scammer gains access to your bank account or other information without your knowledge. Or, it can be credit card fraud, where a thief uses your card number to buy things and resell them for cash. In addition to common ploys like email or phone phishing scams, some identify fraudsters also use new strategies to prey on targets.
To prevent identity theft and help protect you and your loved ones during this time, stay alert to these threats.
Identity Theft Threat #1: Scammers preying on pandemic fears.
Scammers know that some people are desperate to find a work-from-home job or to get vaccinated, so they target these areas. Criminals use so-called phishing emails to “fish” for private information. They send emails with links that mimic legitimate business websites and attempt to get you to add your bank account numbers, Social Security numbers and credit card information. Some email scams appear to come from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). Others lure people to fraudulent treatment or vaccine websites. Always hover over links before clicking to see where they actually take you.
Identity thieves use needs that arose from COVID-19 to lure people with supposed work-from-home opportunities or ways to find vaccines. Before clicking, always hover over links to see where they will lead.
Employment scams may promise attractive work-from-home jobs or a quick hiring process, preying upon those who've been laid off or furloughed during the pandemic. Be wary of anyone who calls or emails you offering a work-from-home job with an easy hiring process or a new treatment for coronavirus. If someone calls and asks you to verify account information or clear up a bill, hang up and call the business directly.
For more on specific COVID-19 fraud risks and prevention, visit fbi.gov/coronavirus.
Learn about the Department of Justice’s response at justice.gov/coronavirus.
Report COVID-19 fraud by contacting the National Center for Disaster Fraud Hotline at 866-720-5721 or by submitting a complaint form at justice.gov/disaster-fraud/ncdf-disaster-complaint-form.
Identity Theft Threat #2: Scammers targeting children.
More than a million children were impacted by identity fraud in 2017, according to a report from Javelin Strategy & Research. If an identity thief manages to learn a child's Social Security number, they can apply for government benefits, open bank and credit card accounts, apply for loans, set up utility service or rent a home or apartment. Because you may not think to check a child's credit report, this type of fraud can go on a long time before being detected.
Check your child’s credit report periodically, pay attention to data breaches and ask how your child’s information is being used at schools and organizations they belong to.
As your child grows, many schools and organizations require you to provide information. Ask how your child's data is collected, used, stored and discarded, and pay close attention if you are notified of a data breach.
Additionally, children themselves often divulge more personal data than they realize. Social media, gaming communities, surveys and other websites often ask for a variety of data. Kids often willingly provide their name, birthdate and other specifics via social media or online communities. It’s important to talk to your kids about the dangers of revealing too much personal data.
The child is turned down for government benefits.
The IRS sends a notice saying the child didn't pay income taxes, or that their Social Security number was used on someone else's tax return.
You get collection calls or receive bills for products and services you didn't receive.
Identity Theft Threat #3: Scammers targeting seniors.
Seniors may also be a prime target for identity thieves. In fact, the Federal Trade Commission reports that 14% of identity theft victims are children or seniors. Seniors are online more and more, and as new adopters to technology, they may click on unsafe links or more easily get caught up in scams, especially if they’re trusting by nature. When buying items online, seniors may not always think about whether the website is secure and encrypted.
Seniors: Stay aware of potential scams and protect your documents and cell phone. Go paperless when possible.
Family members: Be aware of the financial warning signs and offer help.
Seniors' regular income and accumulated assets put them at greater risk for financial exploitation, online and offline. For instance, a phone or online scammer could convince the individual to pay for fraudulent services or investment schemes or pretend to be the target’s grandchild needing money.
A senior is unwilling to discuss or seems confused about financial or estate plans.
You notice unusual bills, collection notices, payments, withdrawals, new accounts or sudden account closures.
Expected checks are missing or never deposited.
Here are some additional steps you can take to protect your family and yourself from identity theft.
Protect Your Documents
Keep documents like Social Security cards, birth certificates, car titles, tax returns and insurance policies in a secure place, such as locking file drawers, a home safe or a safety deposit box at your bank.
For other documents, try these tips for added defense:
Destroy paper records and statements that include any personal or financial data.
Avoid leaving a paper trail of ATM, credit card or retail receipts behind. Throw them away or shred them when you get home.
Review documents in a timely manner for any suspicious activities. Many institutions have a 10- to 15-day period to report once you receive your statement.
Sign up for electronic statements when possible. Generally, you receive an email notification, with no personal information, when your document or bill is ready to be viewed online. Mailed utility bills, bank or financial statements, checks, credit card offers and others, all contain some personal information—often enough that thieves can fill in the missing pieces. Don’t leave mail in your mailbox as identity thieves may steal it, or even rummage through your trash to get your information. Also sign up for text alerts when available so you’ll know when there’s activity on your account.
Protect your cell phone
Your mobile phone contains lots of personal information, so lock it with a strong passcode, or fingerprint or facial recognition scan in case it's lost or stolen.
If You Suspect Identity Theft, Act Fast
Hackers and identity thieves may obtain data before you even know it's missing. Whether it's your data that has been exposed, or that of your child or aging parent, it's important to act quickly to minimize any potential financial damage.
Contact financial institutions.
Close fraudulent accounts.
Place a fraud alert on your credit reports by contacting the three major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.
File a report at IdentityTheft.org.
Order copies of credit reports through the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or through the major credit bureaus.
Capture all communications in writing.
This material has been prepared for educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide, and should not be relied upon for, investment, accounting, legal or tax advice.