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Online Identity Theft: How to Protect Your Digital Privacy

Online Identity Theft

Online identity theft is a growing threat to everyone. Learn what online identity theft meaning is and how to protect sensitive personal information from data breaches and other criminal activity. Online identity theft in 2023 is more important than ever before 

In our everyday lives, we rely on computer networks to connect with the world around us. Many of us do our banking, make purchases, manage insurance policies, and check details from major credit bureaus from our home computers or mobile devices.

As more and more people transmit or store data on the web, digital identity theft victims grow in numbers every year. What is identity theft and how can you protect yourself and your family from the risks associated with cybercrimes like identity fraud or online impersonation? Let’s explore this challenging topic.

What is Identity Theft in 2023?

While the online identity theft meaning may differ for everyone — it is sometimes referred to as ID theft or identity fraud — is defined by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission as an act that happens when someone steals your personal information for the purpose of committing some type of fraud.

In essence, identity theft occurs when a person’s personal identifying information is lost, either through a data breach, physical loss, or through spoofing an individual to reveal personal information via email, telephone, or mail.

While identity theft can take many forms, there are several specific types that people should be aware of:

“True name” identity theft — when a person’s actual identifying information is used to commit fraud or related crimes. This is the most common form of identity theft.

Synthetic identity theft — where a criminal uses a combination of real and fake information to commit crimes. For example, a criminal will steal credit card information from one person, a Social Security number from another, and an address from a third to create a false identity.

Aggravated identity theft — where a criminal knowingly uses, possesses, or transfers without lawful authority another person’s sensitive information to commit an act of a felony. Typically, financial fraud or tax related identity theft are felony violations and may be considered aggravated identity theft depending on the severity and amount of monetary losses.

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The Financial Costs Associated with Identity Fraud

In 2021, a research firm called Javelin Strategy & Research compiled statistics on the financial costs of identity theft in the United States. According to the study, 49 million people were victims of identity theft and losses exceeded $56 billion in 2020 alone.

The average cost per victim was about $1100. That doesn’t sound like much, but for many people who were victims of cybercrimes, this represents a significant financial hardship that can be difficult to recover from. When identity theft occurs when someone steals or gains access to your personal details, you may face out-of-control bills and poor ratings from the three major credit bureaus.

Financial institutions and government agencies reported a sharp uptick in identity theft crimes that coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic. As people shifted to remote work options, did more of their purchases online, and completed banking and tax preparation tasks on home computers or mobile devices, these acts made it far easier to commit identity theft.

Once criminals obtain personal information, the number of crimes that can be committed is staggering. Financial identity theft or tax identity theft are the most common types of fraud, leaving victims with empty bank accounts and credit reporting agencies raising alarms.

While $56 billion is a massive loss figure, internet security experts expect that number to grow in years to come as cybercriminals become more sophisticated.

Identity theft crimes

Information Collected for Identity Fraud Crimes

Identity thieves collect a wide range of personal information from victims. This information can be used to gain access to your bank account, file fraudulent tax returns, make fraudulent purchases, and impersonate you in a wide variety of unauthorized transactions.

Every time you conduct business online, personal information is collected and stored in digital databases. A data breach can affect thousands — even millions — of people. Information used by identity thieves includes:

  • Credit reports
  • Bank account number
  • Bank statements
  • Driver’s license number and similar identification documents
  • Financial statements
  • Credit card number
  • Marriage licenses
  • Real estate transaction documents
  • Tax documents from state tax agencies and the Internal Revenue Service

Identity thieves piece together the information they need from multiple sources. With personal identifying information, it is relatively easy to obtain credit or to create false identification documents in your name, potentially putting you and your family at financial risk.

How Do Criminals Gain Access to My Personal or Financial Information?

Identity thieves employ a wide range of strategies to obtain personally identifiable information from unsuspecting victims. These strategies may occur in the digital environment or are committed physically. Common types of data breaches include:

  • Stolen information from mailboxes, offices, or even the garbage.
  • Ransomware — where thieves hijack a network and hold information at ransom in exchange for a fee paid to the criminals. Ransomware has been responsible for billions of dollars in losses.
  • Phishing/Vishing/Smishing — phishing is when someone sends an email that directs victims to a false website that looks like the bank or credit card company site. When the victim types in his or her personal information, it is then stolen by data thieves. Vishing is similar, but uses phone calls impersonating a bank or credit official to steal information. Smishing uses text messages for the purposes of obtaining personal information.
  • Virus or malware attacks that take over computers, then direct information to a criminal.

Through sophisticated tactics or brute force attacks, some of the largest corporations and medical services agencies have fallen victim to identity theft schemes. Even secure websites like those maintained by federal agencies are not immune from criminal identity theft attempts.

Public Records Databases and Data Brokers

Thieves who specialize in stealing identities do not always have to resort to hacking techniques to gain access to your personal details. In many cases, a vast amount of information is available to anyone with an internet connection and a few minutes of time.

What are the sources of this information? The first is public records databases operated by government agencies. Public records laws often require agencies to post records online for public access. These records can include:

  • Marriage records
  • Property purchases and tax assessments
  • Arrest records
  • Mugshots
  • Vehicle records

The second source of information is the huge collection of data broker and people-search sites. These websites scour public records databases, then republish the information they find on their own sites. Anyone can search by name, address, or location.

Thieves use the information from public records and data broker sites to put together false identities, such as in synthetic identity theft schemes. The best way to combat the loss of this information is to opt out of data collection wherever possible. NetReputation’s team of content removal specialists can help you get your information off the web, protecting your sensitive details and your personal privacy.

Common Types of Identity Theft

Now that we understand what information criminals use and how they get it, it can be valuable to learn about the specific types of identity theft. The most common include:

Child Identity Theft

Child identity theft is a growing problem. In this type of theft, a child’s identity is stolen or spoofed, allowing criminals to establish a fraudulent bank account or credit account in the child’s name. This type of fraud is typically a form of synthetic identity theft, where real and fake information is used to create a new persona that criminals then commit crimes with.

Medical Identity Theft

Criminals gain access to medical databases, such as those run by hospitals and clinics. Records collected and stored by medical practitioners often include personal information as well as billing information. Often, medical identity theft fraudsters will hijack the information entirely in a ransomware attack, potentially locking medical professionals out of the information they need to treat their patients. In other cases, criminals will get medical services in your name and leave you to pay the bills.

Financial Identity Theft

By far the most common — and most lucrative — type of theft, financial identity theft results in billions of dollars in monetary losses each year. Credit reporting agencies and the United States government know that the frequency and severity of financial fraud are only growing as more and more banking information is stored in computer networks. Financial identity theft may also include tax identity theft, where someone uses your information to file fraudulent tax claims in your name and pockets the refunds.

How Can I Find Out if Someone Has Stolen My Personal Information?

Because identity crimes are often sophisticated enterprises, many victims do not know that their details have been hijacked or stolen until it’s too late. How can you find out if someone has stolen your personal information or financial records?

Gov websites and the official websites of the largest credit reporting agencies provide details for identity theft victims — think of these as the warning signs your information may have been compromised:

  • Bills for items or services you did not purchase
  • Calls from debt collection agencies or the credit bureau in regards to accounts you did not open
  • Loan application denials, such as when victims attempt to finance a home or vehicle purchase

What to Do if You’ve Been the Victim of Identity Theft

If strange phone calls from the credit reporting agency or empty bank accounts have occurred, you may have been caught up in a criminal identity theft incident. Remember, when another person steals your identity or banking details, you could be at risk of financial hardships or worse. If identity crimes have happened to you, victims should take the following steps:

  • Report identity theft promptly by filing a police report.
  • File an identity theft report with the fraud department of your credit card company and any banks you use.
  • File a theft report with the credit reporting agencies
  • Obtain copies of your credit reports and study them to identify any accounts you did not open.

To combat identity theft, it is imperative that fraud victims let law enforcement agencies and financial institutions know as soon as possible. Armed with this information, the law enforcement community can work quickly to bring criminals to justice.

Identity Theft and Your Online Reputation

Most of our discussion about identity theft revolves around the financial implications of these crimes. There is another important consideration, however: the threat to your online reputation.

Identity theft occurs when someone steals your personal property — your identifying information. What criminals do with this information can have long-ranging effects on you and your family. Imagine if someone stole your identity and used it to impersonate you online, such as by posting derogatory or false content on social media accounts or blogs? If another person were to search for your name, they might find embarrassing details in search results.

People use the web every day to learn about others. If negative information from identity theft has been posted in your name, your bad online reputation may prevent you from:

  • Getting a job
  • Securing a home or vehicle loan
  • Starting a relationship with someone new
  • Being accepted into college or trade school

Your online reputation is one of the most important intangible things you can have. You must do everything you can to protect your reputation in the digital environment. An identity thief may commit fraud in order to ruin your chances of reaching your personal or professional goals.

If you have been the victim of an identity crime, an online reputation management company can help you restore your good name by removing negative or harmful content in online search results. This, along with a fraud claim on your credit report, can begin the process of healing that every victim deserves.

Tips for Protecting Your Information from Data Breaches

We spend a lot of time online doing banking, making purchases, and filing insurance claims. Every time we conduct business online, we put our personal information at risk of theft or loss. How can you protect this sensitive information and keep it out of the hands of criminals? Here are some tips for online identity theft protection from USA.gov, the official government organization website:

  • When you visit your bank’s website, make sure you are safely connected to the legitimate site. Banks often use two-factor authentication to verify that it’s you before asking you to share details like your account number or other financial information.
  • Think twice about posting personal identifying information on social media. Criminals often scour social accounts to get the details needed to commit identity theft — details like your dog’s name, your first car, or your children’s names.
  • Regularly pull your credit reports from the major bureaus. Inspect them carefully to identify any credit card accounts or loans you don’t remember opening.
  • Never share your login credentials with another person. Your friends or family members may not be as careful as you in protecting this information from loss.
  • Change your passwords frequently.

Remember, identity theft protection begins with smart online practices. Protect your details with the tips above to avoid becoming a victim of identity fraud.

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Contact NetReputation to Learn More

NetReputation is the leader in online reputation management. We have helped thousands of people establish, build, or repair a robust and positive digital footprint. Identity theft hurts thousands of people each year.

Learn more about how to protect your personal information from data breaches by contacting our content removal professionals today. Call NetReputation at 844-461-3632 or complete the online form below for a free consultation.

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