Identity Theft 101—How to Protect Yourself

Written by | Updated July 21, 2017

Since 2013, nearly twenty-two million people have had their identities stolen through data breaches that gave hackers access to critical personal information like credit card and Social Security numbers—and those crimes aren’t slowing down.1

Now, in 2017, more than 200 businesses have been victims of attacks designed to access payroll and social security information.2 As hackers get smarter, it’s more important than ever to understand what identity theft is and how to prevent it.

What Is Identity Theft?

Identity theft occurs when someone gains access to your personal information. This can include financial information like credit card numbers and banking accounts or other data such as your birthdate, Social Security number, and address. Other times, they are looking for usernames and passwords to your computer, phone, or online accounts.

Once someone obtains this information, they can assume your identity and use it to access your financial resources and open new credit accounts. Once your identity is stolen, it can be nearly impossible to completely erase the damage. Without the proper identity protection safeguards in place, you can face a hefty financial toll from which it can take years to recover. 

Am I a Target for Identity Theft?

Sadly, anyone can be a target of identity theft. If you have a bank account or use debit or credit cards to shop—even if you only shop in person—you are at risk. If you have usernames and passwords that you use to log in to computers at home or at work, you could be targeted. In this digital age, nearly everyone has an online store of information about themselves and their lives that can, if breached, result in identity theft.

Even if you don’t store your information online, someone somewhere does. Much of our personal information is public, and that data is collected and used by multiple companies and organizations—often without our explicit knowledge. That is why you need to understand how to prevent identity theft and how to report it if you end up becoming a victim.

Common Identity Theft Scams to Watch Out For

Although there is no foolproof way to ensure your personal data will never be compromised, you can drastically minimize the odds of becoming a victim.

It helps to understand what types of scams are out there. Knowing the modus operandi of the bad guys can give you a leg up when it comes to identity theft protection. Here are some of the most common tactics used, and what you can do to prevent identity theft.

1. Phishing

This is one of the most common identity theft scams out there. Phishing is when a criminal tries to steal your personal or financial information by using an email or website disguised as a legitimate company’s.  There is usually a message asking you to click a link in order to update or verify your account information. If you click on the link, you will probably end up with malware installed on your computer.

This malware can spy on your online activity and give the hackers access to any personal data that you store on your computer or enter to access an account. In addition, if you enter any personal or account details after clicking the link, you’ve just given that info to the criminals.

How to Prevent Identity Theft from Phishing

Closely review all emails before opening them or clicking on any links they may contain. Familiarize yourself with the practices of companies you conduct business with, especially how they update and maintain your personal information.

Also, pay attention to the legitimate email addresses the company uses when contacting you—most phishing scams try to be as close to the real thing as possible, so you have to thoroughly inspect the email address from which the message came.

Sometimes, your gut instinct can become your best identity theft protection. If an email seems suspicious, don’t open it or click on any links it contains. Contact the company either by phone or a tested email address you have used before and ask them about the message and any concerns about your account.

Bottom line: when in doubt, assume you’re dealing with a scam.

2. Ransomware

There’s been a lot in the news lately about ransomware attacks that encrypt an individual’s or company’s data and ask for a payment in order to restore the information. This kind of attack can be a double whammy because the criminals gain access to your identifying data and they ask you to pay them a fee to stop them from using it. Some ransomware attacks even lock people out of their operating system instead of encrypting the data.

Ransomware is often delivered via a corrupt link in an email, a fake form on a website, or vulnerabilities in software. It may also be included in an attachment. The malicious software is usually activated in attachment by enabling macros when you open the document. Once the malware is activated, it only takes a few minutes for the data on your computer to become encrypted. Hackers usually ask for a few hundred dollars to restore the information they’ve stolen.

How to Prevent Identity Theft from Ransomware

One of the best ways to counter a ransomware attack is to have current backups of all your data. This type of identity theft protection makes the ransom threat moot. You can backup data using an external hard drive or the Cloud.

Other identity protection strategies include disabling macros in Microsoft Office and removing plug-ins like Adobe Reader and Java from your browsers. If you do need one of these plug-ins from time to time, all you need to do is set the browser to ask you if you want to use the plugin before it launches.

3. Fake Computer Repair or Online Security Plans

This type of identity theft scam preys on your fear of falling victim to an attack. Watch out for pop-ups, calls, or emails claiming to be from a firm that offers antivirus and identity theft protection or computer repair. The communication typically claims that your computer has already been compromised or infected with malware.

They promise to eradicate the threat and restore any corrupted files before the damage can wipe out your whole machine. But to implement their “cure,” they need full access to your computer and files. This requires you to give them your username and password or grant them remote access. Once inside, they can infect your computer with a virus that they then offer to repair for a fee. They can also send out identifying data that lets them steal your identity.

How to Prevent Identity Theft from Fake Protection Plans

Never open or click on popups or emails warning you that your computer has been attacked. You can also use an ad-blocker to keep out potential threats and malware. Not only does this keep you from annoying ad interruptions, but it can also keep out sneaky hacking threats embedded in pop-up ads.

To avoid being taken to the cleaners by fake antivirus protection, purchase and use a reputable antivirus program that regularly scans your computer and blocks malware. Be sure to find the best identity theft protection, and look for a product that includes automatic updates and real-time scanning. This keeps your computer and files protected from the latest security threats and lets you know immediately if it detects a threat.


Identity theft is a scary reality of the world we live in, but you don’t have to be a sitting duck. Knowledge is power, so here’s what we know.

  • Identity theft isn’t going away and becomes more sophisticated all the time.
  • Hackers have turned phishing and other malicious attacks into a business.
  • Even though new threats are created all the time, you can protect yourself by staying informed and sharing the information you learn with others.
  • You can stop identity theft through paid identity theft protection and by adopting the right online behaviors.
  • If you are attacked, make sure you know how to report identity theft to your individual financial institutions, your credit card companies, and the authorities.

Identity theft scams can seem overwhelming, but you are not powerless. Get to know the scams detailed in this article and be on the lookout for potential threats. Take the actions recommended, arm yourself with identity theft protection, and share your experiences with others to help thwart the spread of malicious identity theft attacks. 

1. Identity Theft Resource Center, “How Data Breaches Affect Your Identity
2. Identity Theft Resource Center, “2017 Data Breach Stats

Written by Rebecca Edwards

Rebecca has honed her safety and security skills as both a single mom and a college director. Being responsible for the well-being of others helped her learn how to minimize risk and create safe environments. Learn more

Share this article.