Rising identity theft threat magnified by lack of consumer action

The occurrence of identity theft continues to rise. In fact, according to a Javelin Strategy and Research survey, over 15 million Americans were victims of identity theft in 2016, up 16 percent from 2015. What’s even more concerning, is that despite the news surrounding data breaches and identity theft risk, consumers aren’t placing enough urgency on proactively protecting themselves from this life-altering crime.   

Inconsistent with the growing threat, a recent Experian survey shows consumers are not as active in protecting themselves as they should be, foregoing caution in favor of less hassle. Almost two-thirds of those surveyed agreed that the security of personal information online is too difficult to constantly monitor. In addition, 53 percent said staying on top of financial transactions is challenging, and 48 percent don’t regularly check their credit reports for signs of mistakes or suspicious activity. These responses reflect a lack of engagement, even though 84 percent of respondents are concerned about the online security of their information.   

The marginal effort may be a byproduct of general misconceptions consumers have about identity theft and fraud. They appear ill-informed when it comes to the risk they face, despite the media’s increased attention to online security and safety.    

In fact, the survey found that 52 percent are convinced identity theft isn’t likely to happen to them, and 72 percent think thieves only steal identities from wealthy people. In addition, nearly 1 in 10 respondents don’t believe they’re at risk because of their low credit scores or not having enough money. The fact is, identity theft can happen to anyone, no matter their financial or credit standing, and this fallacy can lead to a false sense of security.   

Further, the survey found that 53 percent of respondents think that they don’t have to worry about identity theft because their banks and credit card companies monitor accounts for them. While many do offer to monitor accounts with alerts, that feature must be activated and does not eliminate the threat of identity theft.   

Consumers should be actively engaged with their personal and financial accounts, closely monitoring them for anything unusual. If anything seems out of place they should take it up with their bank or card company immediately.  

Recovering from identity theft can be a long and frustrating struggle. Many people think it can only happen once, or that risks fluctuate - the survey found 56 percent believe identity theft risks go away over time. To the contrary, identity theft often carries with it lifelong consequences. 

The good news? Consumers can take steps to both reduce their chances of identity theft and monitor for possible fraud if already a victim. Shredders are a smart way to destroy unneeded personal documents, like bank statements, so they don’t end up in the wrong hands. Consumers should also be weary of suspicious emails and avoid clicking any links that could be phishing scams. Password protecting devices and accounts can also help secure personal information, especially when it comes to a cell phone. Mobile technology provides access to sensitive information, so setting a unique password, and changing it regularly, can help keep that information protected. Enabling remote finding and wiping software, which tracks the phone or destroys data if the phone is lost or stolen, is an extra step that could ensure the safety of personal information.   

The risk of identity theft is also reduced by being careful about posting information, such as in social media, and not accessing sensitive information while on public Wi-Fi or unsecured networks. Consumers should also consider identity protection products, such as Experian’s IdentityWorks, which monitors financial accounts and credit reports for suspicious activity, regularly searches for sensitive information that has been exposed in illegal online markets, and alerts members to any potential identity fraud. This option is particularly relevant if one’s identity, or personally identifiable information (PII), has already been compromised. At a minimum, checking credit reports – available for free at annualcreditreport.com – is a great way to watch for any suspicious or unauthorized accounts. 

Identity theft is not one of those things that “happens to someone else.” Consumers should be aware of the true risk, especially as the risk increases, and do what they can to reduce their vulnerability. Taking steps to safeguard personal, sensitive information can protect against identity theft and keeping an eye on one’s financial accounts – independently or with the help of a product designed to assist that effort – can mitigate or even stop fraud. Doing nothing, however, is only making it easier for thieves to claim even more victims next year.   

For information regarding identity protection and dealing with fraud, as well as more details on this survey, visit the Experian Credit Education blog. Consider enrolling in a dark web and credit monitoring product such as Experian IdentityWorks, which can help better track and manage your credit with mobile alerts, lock your Experian credit file with Experian CreditLock, and help mitigate the damage from fraud with access to fraud resolution specialists and up to $1 million in identity theft insurance. 

Here are some tips to help monitor for fraud and protect personal information: 

  • Check your credit report for accuracy. You can get a free report from each credit bureau annually at annualcreditreport.com. 
  • Consider an identity protection product like Experian IdentityWorks to help monitor your financial accounts and credit report. Experian IdentityWorks provides dark web monitoring to identify if personal information is exposed in illegal markets, a variety of alerts to warn of potential identity fraud and up to $1 million in identity theft insurance for peace of mind.   
  • Password-protect your phone. Your phone provides access to sensitive information and accounts. Set a unique password to unlock the device, and enable remote finding and wiping software to track the phone or destroy the data if it’s lost or stolen. 
  • Use a password manager to create strong passwords for online accounts, and change them regularly. 
  • Don’t access financial information or shop online using public Wi-Fi or an unsecured network. 
  • Be careful about what personal information you share online (e.g., social networks). 

Michael Bruemmer, Vice President of Identity Protection at Experian 

Image Credit: Pavel Ignatov / Shutterstock

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