What do you do if someone else becomes you?
Identity theft is a very real villain in the United States.
In fact, it has been for a long time.
The very first identity thieves operated IRL. They used a technique called "ghosting," where they would take on the identity by literally obtaining and using the real documents of a dead person or, in more extreme cases, murder their victims and live their lives.
By the 1960s, scammers would frequently call an unsuspecting stranger, tell them they had just won cash, and ask for their personal information in order to release their "winnings."
Once the '80s rolled around, the authorities were more vigilant and criminals had to resort to other dirty tactics — like literally going through your trash and looking for discarded paperwork with personal information (bank statements, pay stubs, bills, you name it).
Yet as technology has continued to advance, so have the powers of identity thieves.
Now, someone can manipulate all your information without even being in the same country as you.
Using spyware, phishing, or pharming techniques, these criminals can hack your personal records, prevent you from getting a job, or worse, take out a loan in your name — all from the comfort of their own computer.
This is probably not a huge surprise to you. In a recent survey by the AICPA, 21% of respondents said they experienced identity theft in the past year, while 50% said they expect it to happen to them in the coming year — not a good sign.
But don't fear too much! This evil can be defeated with a solid plan of attack.
We teamed up with David Almonte, a CPA and audit senior at Grant Thornton, to find ways to combat this new breed of criminal. When asked about them, David said: "They're not trying to make things too complicated because they don't have time for that. They want the easy victims. So I think our job is to educate the people that don't know the basics."
The evildoers won't know what hit 'em. Here are five ways that'll help save the day.
1. Establish an impenetrable shield.
To ensure your online safety, start by using solid, complex passwords (not the word "password") for all your online accounts and changing them up every once in a while. Just make sure you memorize them and never write them down. (Don't be that person who leaves passwords sticky-noted to the computer for the whole office to see.)
In fact, some go the extra mile and install added security measures such as text or email verification. If you're not sure how to do this, just contact your bank and they'll be happy to help you out.
2. Maximize your arsenal of information.
You have unprecedented access to all your personal information, so use that to your advantage. But where to start? Well, if you're just paying attention to this issue now, David says, "The most important thing you can do is to get your credit report. Make sure everything's on there."
Check out your bank statements regularly as well. If you have trouble keeping track, you can download a personal finance app to make it easier to see your accounts at a glance. When you're in control, nothing will get past you.
3. Outsmart the enemy with a clever strategy.
Hackers aren't the only ones allowed to have tricks up their sleeves. Stay out of sight and make yourself harder to track — request paperless statements, use cash and checks more often, or even limit your online transactions.
If you're a heavy card user though, David suggests reaching for your credit card rather than your debit card when you're out on the town.
"With your credit card, you're usually liable for $50 of fraudulent charges, and most credit cards will waive that. ... If someone steals your debit card and ... say you have $5,000 in your account and they spend all $5,000, whether or not you're going to get that back, you're out $5,000 until it gets handled."
4. Set up emergency signals.
This is your last line of defense. Since our phones are always by our side, best to make the most out of it. Customize your security settings so you can monitor your accounts much better through apps, SMS notifications, or any other mobile options they may offer.
"Set up the free alerts, get the apps, everything!" adds David. You want to be contacted right away whenever a certain amount gets charged to your card.
Sadly, things can still go wrong and you could find yourself compromised. If that happens...
5. Don’t hesitate to call in reinforcements.
You are never alone, my friend. And David knows that. "If you do end up getting your identity stolen or you think it got stolen, freeze all your credit cards, contact the Federal Trade Commission, your local police, and your credit card companies. The worst thing you can do is do nothing."
No matter what's thrown your way, the moment something feels wrong, you have to take action. After all, that's what superheroes always do, right?
Have no fear — you got this.