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How to Prevent Identity Theft in 2024: Protect Your Identity for Free

The specter of identity theft looms over every internet user, especially those who are more nonchalant about their social media sharing habits. This guide will teach you how to prevent identity theft in 15 different ways.

Aleksandar KochovskiSamuel ChapmanIgor Kurtz

Written by Aleksandar Kochovski (Writer, SEO Editor)

Reviewed by Samuel Chapman (Writer, Editor)

Facts checked by Igor Kurtz (Fact-checking editor)

Last Updated: 2024-05-07T10:05:04+00:00

All our content is written fully by humans; we do not publish AI writing. Learn more here.

Key Takeaways: How to Prevent Identity Theft From Happening
  1. Regularly monitor your credit reports
  2. Keep an eye on your financial accounts
  3. Shred sensitive documents
  4. Update your online electronic devices
  5. Use strong and unique passwords
  6. Enable two-factor authentication
  7. Install antivirus software
  8. Use a VPN
  9. Be cautious when using public WiFi
  10. Watch out for phishing scams
  11. Limit the personal information you share
  12. Keep your social security number safe
  13. Monitor your child’s credit
  14. Use an identity theft protection service
  15. Freeze your credit

Facts & Expert Analysis: What Is Identity Theft?

  • The Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) — the FBI’s cybercrime division — receives around 652,000 complaints per year, while the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) got over a million identity theft reports in 2022.
  • The FTC received more than one million identity theft reports in 2023, amounting to 19% of all fraud reports. 
  • The banking sector is the worst affected by identity theft, with a staggering 94% of organizations reporting incidences of ID fraud.

Before you learn how to prevent identity theft, it helps to know what you’re up against. Identity theft occurs when someone steals your personal or financial information and uses it to gain access to your accounts, open new ones, make purchases or perform other actions in your name.

It presents a major online threat, with one person falling victim to identity theft every 22 seconds in the United States, according to our ID fraud statistics. What’s worse, stats show that a quarter of identity theft victims will have their identities stolen again.

We wrote this article to help protect you from having your identity stolen and to provide support to those who have already fallen prey to an identity thief. Read on to discover 15 different ways you can protect your identity online and learn the main factors that lead to identity theft.

  • 10/21/2021

    Added extra tips, FAQs, screenshots, meta description, secondary description and key takeaways.

  • 05/07/2024 Facts checked

    Expanded to include more information on the different identity theft types, common ID fraud scams and ways fraudsters can get to your personal data.

Common Types of Identity Theft

Around 1.4 million Americans experienced identity theft in some form in 2023, with 27% reporting they experienced ID theft multiple times. High-profile cases like the Equifax data breach in 2017, which exposed the personal and financial information of over 147 million Americans, highlight the need for individuals to be proactive in protecting their identities.

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Recognizing the different types of identity theft is the first step toward protecting yourself from them. Here are the seven most common types of identity fraud.

1. Child Identity Theft

This occurs when a thief uses a child’s social security number (SSN) or other identifying data to open new accounts or obtain government benefits in the child’s name. Parents might not discover this until the child is older and tries to apply for their first job, credit card or student loan.

Warning signs:

  • Receiving collection calls or bills for accounts you didn’t open.
  • Being denied government benefits due to an existing account or credit file.
  • Receiving prescreened credit card or loan offers in your child’s name.
2. Synthetic Identity Theft

In this type of identity theft, the criminal creates a new identity by combining real and fake personal information, such as a real (stolen) SSN with a made-up name and address. This can be challenging to detect and resolve.

Warning signs:

  • Getting bills or debt collection notices for an account you don’t recognize.
  • Being denied credit, loans or government benefits due to a poor credit history.
  • Finding unfamiliar accounts on your credit report.
3. Medical Identity Theft

When an identity thief gains access to your medical information, they can use it to obtain treatment and prescription drugs, or even file fraudulent medical claims in your name. This can impact your credit report and medical history.

Warning signs:

  • Medical bills for treatments you did not receive.
  • Strange activity on your medical record, such as unfamiliar treatments, procedures or prescriptions.
  • Being denied insurance coverage due to reaching your limit.
4. Taxpayer Identity Theft

Identity thieves may use your social security number to file a fraudulent tax return and claim a refund. This can result in delayed tax refunds and the need to prove your identity to the IRS.

Warning signs:

  • Receiving letters from the IRS about suspicious tax returns or other activity filed in your name.
  • Receiving W-2 forms from employees you don’t recognize (if you’re a business owner).
  • Being notified about seized tax returns or fines for owed taxes related to returns you did not file.
5. Criminal Identity Theft

In this scenario, an identity thief provides your personal information to law enforcement when arrested, potentially leading to wrongful criminal charges and a tarnished reputation. 

Warning signs:

  • Finding criminal charges or arrests on your record where there shouldn’t be any.
  • Being denied employment, housing or other opportunities due to a criminal background.
  • Receiving a court summons or notice about a legal proceeding you are not involved in.
6. Credit Identity Theft

Identity thieves may use your personal information to open new credit cards or take out loans in your name, damaging your credit history and score. According to our research, this is the most common type of fraud, affecting 389,737 people in 2023.

Warning signs:

  • Being denied loans or benefits due to existing debt or unexpectedly poor credit.
  • Receiving bills or collection notices for unfamiliar credit card issuers on accounts you did not open.
  • Finding unfamiliar public records associated with your name, such as liens or judgments.
7. Account Identity Theft

Criminals may gain access to your existing financial accounts, including bank accounts and credit cards, and make unauthorized transactions.

Warning signs:

  • Finding unauthorized transactions in your bank, credit card or other financial statements.
  • Seeing accounts that you didn’t open listed on your credit report.
  • Receiving notifications about password changes or login attempts from a device that does not belong to you.

15 Ways to Prevent Identity Theft

Now that we’re all familiar with what ID theft is and what forms it can take, we can move on to protection measures. It’s important to have identity theft protection, so here are 15 ways to avoid identity theft exposure:

1. Regularly Monitor Your Credit Reports

One of the best ways to prevent financial identity theft is to regularly check your credit reports for suspicious activity. You’re entitled to one free credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) every 12 months through the annual credit report website.

2. Keep an Eye on Your Financial Accounts

Regularly review your bank and credit card statements for any unfamiliar activity. Report any suspicious activity to your banks, credit card companies and other relevant financial institutions.

3. Shred Sensitive Documents

Many identity fraud cases start with a simple rummage through someone’s trash. Make sure to properly dispose of all sensitive documents (bank statements, credit card statements, financial documents and other identifying documents) by shredding them before throwing them away.

4. Update Your Online Electronic Devices

Keep your computers, smartphones and other electronic devices updated, especially if the update contains critical security patches.

5. Use Strong and Unique Passwords

No, we don’t mean just one strong password that you use for everything. If you use the same password on multiple accounts, all of them can be hacked at the same time. You need to have a unique password for each of your online accounts, including financial and email accounts. To make things easier, use a password manager to generate and store strong passwords securely.

6. Enable Two-Factor Authentication

Two-factor authentication (2FA) adds a second verification step for your account, which requires you to verify all logins via an app on your mobile device or through email. Activate it on all of your accounts to prevent unwanted logins.

7. Install Antivirus Software

Viruses and other malware can infect your electronic devices and potentially steal your data. Installing antivirus or antimalware software on your device will protect it from most viral infections. We also recommend running a regular online backup so you can restore your files in case they become corrupted.

8. Use a VPN

A virtual private network (VPN) is a piece of software that encrypts all of your internet traffic. That includes activity on banking sites or financial apps. When you use a VPN, no one can see your online activity, which can help prevent identity theft — though you have to use a reliable VPN provider with a strict no-logs policy.

9. Be Cautious When Using Public WiFi

Public WiFi networks are particularly attractive to hackers, who can attain close proximity to your device via the shared network you’re both using. This enables certain types of cyberattacks that would normally be impossible over the internet. Do not access sensitive information, especially financial accounts, while on public WiFi (and turn that VPN on for good measure).

10. Watch Out for Phishing Scams

Be cautious of unsolicited emails, text messages or phone calls that request personal information, especially if the caller should already have it (banks already have your bank account numbers on file, and the IRS already knows your SSN).

11. Limit the Personal Information You Share

Be selective about what you put online, especially on public social media. Avoid oversharing and be cautious when sharing personal data with businesses — only provide the bare minimum when required.

12. Keep Your Social Security Number Safe

Avoid carrying your social security card with you and don’t share your social security number with anyone unless it’s absolutely necessary.

13. Monitor Your Child’s Credit

If you have children, check their credit reports regularly for any signs of identity theft. If you find any open accounts that you didn’t set up, contact the relevant credit card issuers. This can help catch and resolve issues early on before they have a chance to impact your child’s credit score.

14. Use an Identity Theft Protection Service

You can use several services to remove your data from the hands of data brokers (companies that collect, purchase and resell personal information). Services like Incogni and OneRep will contact data brokers on your behalf to get your data removed. It’s the closest thing to actually scrubbing yourself off the web.

15. Freeze Your Credit

As a last-ditch effort to prevent identity theft, you can always place a credit freeze. This will restrict access to your report and make it more difficult for identity thieves to open new accounts or take loans in your name. Keep in mind that this is a way to stop identity theft in progress, not necessarily prevent it, and it isn’t the most practical solution.

How Identity Theft Happens

Identity theft can occur in various ways, and understanding these methods can help you take the necessary steps to prevent it. Here are some common ways identity thieves gain access to your personal information, followed by bullet points on how to foil them:

1. Lost or Stolen Wallet or Purse

If your wallet or purse gets lost or stolen, an identity thief can gain access to all kinds of sensitive documents, including your driver’s license and credit cards. They may learn identifying info that could help them guess your passwords, and they might even be able to access your mobile devices to gain direct access to payment apps and your personal accounts.

  • Keep your wallet or purse in a secure location at all times.
  • Carry only the bare essentials.
  • Report lost or stolen credit and debit cards to your credit card issuer.
  • Do not use passwords that can be guessed from information on your ID cards.
2. Dumpster Diving

Sometimes stealing personal information can be as simple as taking it out of the trash. If you don’t properly dispose of documents containing identifying data, someone might find it in the garbage and use it to defraud you. If you need to keep digital files, take them off your computer and store them in secure cloud storage instead.

  • Shred all sensitive documents before disposing of them.
3. Stolen Mail

All kinds of sensitive data gets sent over old-fashioned snail mail, which makes mailboxes a treasure trove for identity thieves. 

  • Keep an eye on your mailbox.
  • Remove all mail from the mailbox as soon as it arrives.
  • Shred old letters before disposing of them.
4. Data Breaches

Large-scale data breaches at businesses, government agencies or financial institutions can expose the personal and identifying data of their users. This data usually ends up on the dark web, where it can be sold to hackers and identity thieves.

  • Use a dark web monitoring service, like the one NordVPN offers.
  • Keep an eye out for data breach news on the internet.
  • If any of your passwords are compromised in a data breach, change them immediately.
5. Phishing Scams

Our research shows that phishing scams are the most common vector for identity theft. Phishing is a form of cyberattack where the victim is targeted by an email or phone call asking for identifying information. These emails or calls often come from someone impersonating a distant relative, coworker, financial worker, or another familiar or authoritative person.

  • Never open links in emails from unknown senders.
  • Never send personal information to anybody whose identity you cannot confirm.
  • Be especially wary of emails that try to create a sense of urgency using tricks like dire warnings and red fonts.
  • Double-check email addresses and links for spelling errors.
  • Verify requests for information via a separate call or email to the institution.
6. Skimming Devices

Skimming devices can scan your payment cards as well as steal your credit and debit card information. These are usually installed on ATMs, gas pumps and other public payment terminals.

7. Viruses & Malware

Spyware is a type of malware that steals data from compromised computers. Spyware can infect your device and transmit personal information that it finds on your computer, or create a covert connection that lets the identity thief monitor your keystrokes and other activity.

  • Install antivirus software on all your devices and run regular scans.
  • Use a VPN with a malware blocker.
  • Do not click links in emails from unknown senders, as these often download malware.
8. Crypto Scams

Most crypto scams just aim to directly defraud people by getting them to invest in a fake cryptocurrency, but some crypto scams are a bit more insidious. Scammers may direct you to click on a malicious link that will ask you for your crypto wallet ID and passkey. The link promises you money, but the scammer can use it to drain your entire crypto savings.

  • Do not click on crypto-related links from unknown people.
  • Do not give your wallet passkey or passphrase to anyone.
9. Online Shopping Fraud

Scammers can set up a fake e-store to get people to submit their payment card info, usually with a name similar to a reputable outlet (for example, “amazom.com” instead of “amazon.com”). Phishing links may direct victims to these suspicious sites, or you might find them by accident with a common typo.

  • Double-check the URLs of the shopping sites you use.
  • Avoid shopping at sites you can’t verify as legitimate.
  • Don’t follow emailed links to shopping sites; always navigate to the original site yourself.
10. Other Online Scams

Scams come in all shapes and sizes, and we can’t list them all here. Some scammers have unique approaches that can blindside you, such as romance scams, grandparent scams and other tactics that rely on building relationships over time. In these cases, it’s best to look for warning signs and cut off contact before you overshare.

  • Don’t believe the people you interact with online if you can’t confirm their identity.
  • Avoid forming online relationships with people you’ve never seen.
  • Don’t give personal information to people online, especially if you haven’t seen them IRL or on a video call.

How to Check If Someone Is Using Your Identity?

Detecting identity theft can help minimize the damage and ease the resolution process. Here are some ways to check if someone is using your identity for free:

  1. You receive notifications for unexplained charges on your banking app.
  2. You receive debt collection notices for accounts you didn’t open.
  3. You experience issues when attempting to file a tax return, such as rejection or an unexpected tax bill.
  4. You’re denied credit, loans or benefits due to a credit score or history that is worse than expected.
  5. You receive medical bills for services you did not receive.
  6. You receive unsolicited credit card or loan offers in your name or your child’s name.
  7. You spot unusual or unfamiliar activity on your existing financial accounts.

What to Do If You Suspect You’re a Victim of Identity Theft?

If you suspect that your identity has been stolen, it’s crucial to act quickly to mitigate the damage. Here are the first steps you should take:

  • Contact the three major credit bureaus: Notify Equifax, Experian and TransUnion that you’ve been the victim of identity theft, request a credit report and ask them to place a fraud alert on your credit file.
  • Report identity theft with the Federal Trade Commission: Report the fraud to the FTC by visiting IdentityTheft.gov or calling 1-877-438-4338. The FTC can provide you with a personalized recovery plan and guide you through the rest of the process.
  • Contact your financial institutions: Inform your bank, credit card companies and any other financial institutions you use about the identity fraud. Request that they close any fraudulent accounts as well as issue new cards and account numbers for your existing accounts.
  • Notify relevant agencies: If the identity theft involves tax-related fraud, report it to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) by submitting a form or calling 1-800-908-4490.
  • Dispute all unauthorized charges and get false accounts closed: Work with credit bureaus and other financial institutions to dispute and reverse all fraudulent charges, accounts or account changes. Be sure to get all fraudulent activity removed from your credit reports and records as well.
  • Consider filing a police report: Depending on the severity of the situation, you might need to file a police report. Although it’s unlikely that local law enforcement (or any government agency) can help resolve the case and put the scammer behind bars, contacting them will establish a paper trail that can help with financial disputes.
  • Monitor all your financial accounts: Keep monitoring your accounts for any further unauthorized activity and dispute all of it as soon as it happens.
  • Consider a credit freeze: Freezing your credit can help prevent identity thieves from opening new accounts in your name.

Final Thoughts

Identity theft can be a scary thing to think about, but it’s difficult to avoid if you don’t face up to the problem. By following the strategies in our guide, you can make strides toward protecting yourself from ID theft. Knowing the different types of identity fraud and their warning signs can significantly reduce your risk of getting your identity stolen.

Remember to stay vigilant, monitor your payment and banking accounts closely, and report suspicious activity immediately. What are your thoughts on our guide? Have you ever been a victim of ID theft? How did you deal with it and what was the outcome? Please let us know in the comments below, and as always, thank you for reading.

FAQ: Identity Theft Protection

    1. Monitor your credit reports; you are entitled to free annual credit reports with the major credit card companies.
    2. Keep tabs on your payment accounts.
    3. Use VPNs, password managers, antiviruses and other online security software.
    1. Avoid oversharing on social media.
    2. Do not click on links in emails from untrusted sources.
    3. Properly dispose of sensitive documents.
    4. Use unique, strong passwords for every account.
    5. Report signs of identity theft to the relevant institutions.
  • If you see anomalous activity on your banking accounts, get strange bills or see worsened credit scores, it’s a strong indicator that you’ve had your identity stolen.

  • The best way to resolve identity theft is to report it to the FTC. Once you report the ID theft to them, they can help you by providing the next steps to take and guiding you through them.

  • The deceased person cannot monitor their own accounts, and you are unlikely to have full access at all times. The best thing you can do is transfer all of their money, as well as their physical and liquid property, over to yourself and other inheritors as quickly as possible.

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