What Is Identity Theft?

Identity theft is when someone steals your personal information and uses it without your permission. There are several forms of identity theft, and each one can affect you in a different way.

There’s no way to inoculate yourself against identity theft completely. But if you’re diligent in learning how your information can be at risk and what fraudsters can do with it, you’ll be better equipped to protect your data and act quickly if someone does manage to steal it.

How Identity Theft Happens

Identity theft is a broad term that applies any time someone steals your personal information, such as your Social Security number, and uses it to create a new account, make a purchase or commit other fraud.

Due to the nature of technology and the internet, your personal information is always at risk. If you’re not carefully monitoring your credit file, you may not notice you’ve been victimized until the damage is already done.

Here are 10 of the most common ways identity thieves get hold of your data:

1. Data Breaches

A data breach happens when someone gains access to an organization’s data without authorization. The most common types of information stolen in data breaches include full names, Social Security numbers and credit card numbers.

In 2018, there were 1,244 data breaches in the U.S., and more than 446 million records were exposed, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center.

Because people have so many accounts with various businesses and other organizations, it’s virtually impossible to keep your information safe from a data breach, but there are steps you can take to minimize your risk.

2. Unsecure Browsing

For the most part, you can browse the internet safely, especially if you stick to well-known websites. But if you share any information on an unsecure website or a website that’s been compromised by hackers you could be putting your sensitive information directly in the hands of a thief.

Depending on your browser, you may get an alert if you try to access a risky website.

3. Dark Web Marketplaces

The dark web is often where your personally identifying information ends up after it’s been stolen. Hackers may not necessarily be stealing your information to use it for themselves, but will instead choose to sell it to others who have potentially nefarious intentions.

The dark web is a hidden network of websites that aren’t accessible by normal browsers. People who visit the dark web use special software to mask their identities and activity, making it a haven for fraudsters. If your information ends up on a dark web marketplace, anybody could buy it, putting your identity in more danger.

4. Malware Activity

Malware is malicious software that’s designed to wreak all sorts of havoc. Fraudsters may use malware is to steal your data or spy on your computer activity without you knowing.

5. Credit Card Theft

One of the simplest forms of identity theft is credit card theft. If a thief can gain access to your credit card information, they can use it to make unauthorized purchases.

Common ways credit card theft occurs are through a data breach, physical theft, credit card skimmers and via online retail accounts where card information is stored.

6. Mail Theft

Since long before the internet, identity thieves have been combing through the mail to find documents that held personal information. Bank and credit card statements and any other document you send or receive through the postal system can be intercepted and used to gain access to your data.

The mail you throw away also can leave you vulnerable, so be sure to shred any old mail that may contain personal information.