Most people assume that identity theft is all about money, and this is often the case. But thieves may also have other targets, such as creating fraudulent Medicare claims. It takes multiple forms, so if you’re asking yourself, “How common is identity theft?” the answer is: more common than you’d think.
Identity Theft by the Numbers
The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics regularly conducts National Crime Victimization Surveys. The last year for which data was officially compiled was 2014, and the survey found that 7 percent of Americans age 16 or older had been victimized by identity thieves. That may not sound like a lot, but “16 or older” is key — young children, even babies, can have their Social Security numbers stolen. Overall, about 17.6 million Americans suffered incidents of identity theft in 2014. Theft and fraudulent use of credit card and bank account information accounted for 86 percent of these cases.
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Are You at Risk?
Anyone can become a victim of identity theft, but some individuals are more likely to fall prey to thieves than others. The Internet abounds with opportunities for identity theft, so maintaining a strong level of cybersecurity is crucial if you’re online a lot. Think firewalls, clever and complicated passwords, and — of course — self-restraint.
Those who share excessive personal information on social media open themselves up to attack. Be wary of emails and offers from unknown senders. You probably don’t have a billionaire uncle overseas who has been searching for you for years and has finally unearthed your email address. Don’t give him your Social Security number so he can be sure you’re really his kin.
Smartphones send up another warning flare. If you haven’t passcoded yours, you’re more vulnerable to identity theft if it’s lost or stolen, particularly if you keep a lot of financial apps on there. You’re also at risk if you make it a habit to use public wireless hot spots to connect, even if your phone’s password would foil the most dedicated code cracker.
Who Do Thieves Target?
Children are prime potential victims for reasons that are not financial. They don’t have credit histories yet, but they usually do have Social Security numbers that can be used by anyone who needs citizenship, medical care or a clean criminal history.
Paper vs. Plastic
Then, of course, there’s your wallet. What’s in it? You have a smaller risk of identity theft if you use cash whenever possible. Each time you swipe your credit or debit card, you offer thieves an opportunity to access your account information through a variety of electronic means. This doesn’t mean that writing a check in the grocery store is any safer. Someone can easily peer over your shoulder to read your name, address, account number and the name of your bank on the check.