How Much Information is Needed for Someone to Steal Your Identity?

Millions of Americans are affected by identity theft every year.

You don't want to be one of them.

There are a wide variety of services available to help protect you from identity theft.

But your first line of defense is always your own behavior, and how you manage your information.

Now:

Usually, a single item won't be sufficient for a thief to take your identity.

The problem comes when a thief acquires more than one identifying point about you.

Review the common points of your identity, the impact of each, and ways to protect it from theft.

Your Name

This is the most common information that identifies you.

Fortunately, simply knowing your name doesn't help a potential thief very much.

But it will present a problem if the thief has your name, and acquires some other piece of information, like your Social Security number or the account number of a financial account.

How to protect it

Frankly:

You can’t, other than to not disclose it casually.

Your Address

Similar to your name, your physical address is almost impossible to protect.

In fact, it's a matter of public record.

Fortunately, there's not much an identity thief can do with just your address, even if he or she also knows your name.

The information is just too general to be valuable.

How to protect it

Avoid giving your address except where absolutely necessary.

You should also omit your address from your checks.

Why?

A check already includes your name and bank account number. Adding your address gives a thief all that's needed to hijack your identity.

Your Email Address

Much like your phone number, it's almost impossible to protect your email from family, friends, and the people with which you do business.

But as a rule, it has very limited value for identity theft.

The real threat with your email is what are known as phishing schemes. It happens when you get a convincing looking email, generally from a familiar source.

The email invites you to log into your account.

However, you're not logging into your actual account, but a bogus one.

The source of the phishing scheme then has your login credentials and can access your legitimate account.

In some cases, the scheme can even enable the originator to gain access to your computer, stealing even more information.

How to protect it

Other than not giving out your email randomly, it's very difficult to protect it. However, be very careful in opening suspicious emails.

Never click on an attached link – it could expose your computer to hijacking.

And never log on to an online account from an email. Exit the email, then enter your account from the URL from the web.

Your Social Security Number

This is where we begin to get into the information that has the greatest value for identity thieves.

Among all those types of information, none is more important than your Social Security number.

The fact is:

It's the gold standard for identity thieves because it opens so many doors to your financial life.

This is where the combination of general information, like your name, with a Social Security number can be devastating.

This is commonly referred to as personally identifiable information, or PII. When such information is linked to your name, it gives the thief easy access to your identity.

Armed with just your name and your Social Security number, a thief can not only access your accounts but also obtain credit in your name.

How to protect it

You can't afford to drop the ball on this one, the stakes are simply too high.

  • Never carry your Social Security card with you.
  • Never give it out where it's not absolutely necessary.

That includes writing it on a check, other than to the IRS. Also, be sure to store your income tax returns securely.

Many institutions are now showing only the last four digits of your Social Security number, which eliminates a lot of leaks.

Official Documents, Like Your Passport or Driver’s License

You may think these documents have no use to a thief because they include a photo.

But thieves have gotten accomplished at changing out the photo in a passport or driver’s license.

Once obtained and modified, the thief I can impersonate you.

Not only can the person use this for financial gain or access to certain information, but they can also use it in the commission of a crime.

The scary part:

You may be implicated for a crime you never committed.

It can be difficult to clear yourself if your driver’s license or passport is connected with the commission of a crime.

How to protect it

Make sure you know where these documents are at all times.

Be very careful about giving the information out, particularly if that involves physically turning the document over to another party.

You should make a copy of each, and store it someplace safe.

If it's ever lost or stolen, you need to report it to the authorities immediately.

By having copies, you'll be able to provide important information supporting the loss. If a document is lost while you are traveling internationally, report it to both the local police and the U.S. embassy in that country.

Card Information

Much like a Social Security number, a thief only needs your name and credit card number to go on a spending spree.

Many merchants, particularly online, also ask for your credit card expiration date and security code.

But not all do, which opens an opportunity for the thief.

The thief can then purchase merchandise or even take a cash advance against your card.

In most cases, you won't be aware this is happening until after the fact, or when you review your account statement.

How to protect it

Be careful using your credit or debit card with vendors you're not sure about, particularly online.

Review your statements daily so you can identify irregularities quickly.

Tip: Set up account alerts to ping you when there's unusual activity on your accounts.

Both credit and debit cards provide protection against unauthorized use but require immediate reporting on your part. This is particularly true with debit cards.

Once you report the theft, the bank should cancel your card immediately, and issue a new one.

This will prevent the thief from continuing to use the stolen card or information.

Account Information

This can include information relating to checking and savings accounts, investment accounts, and even retirement accounts.

The single most important piece of information is the account number connected to that particular account.

Armed with your name and the account number, a thief can gain access to the account, then transfer the money out.

How to protect it

If you receive paper statements, either keep them under lock and key or shred them regularly.

Never leave them lying around, or simply throw them in the trash. Thieves have been known to root through trash looking for that kind of information.

Make sure any institutions where you save or invest money use encryption to limit access to transmitted data.

Where possible, opt for dual authentication of account access.

This will require an extra step, such as the institution texting you an access code. It will make it that much more difficult for a thief to access your account.

Finally, never provide your account number to a phone caller or online inquiry.

If the contact is legitimately your financial institution, they already have that information.

If someone is requesting it from you, while claiming to represent that institution, it's almost 100% certain it's an attempt to steal your information.

The Potential Damage

One of the biggest problems with identity theft is that it can hurt you in multiple ways.

Using your credit or debit card to make unauthorized purchases, access cash, or clean out your bank account are actually not the worst that can happen (though they’re certainly bad enough).

In most cases, your financial institution will work with you to limit or even eliminate the damage.

The bigger problem is when there's a wholesale theft of your identity. That's when the thief has assembled enough information to fully impersonate you.

That can lead to more devastating consequences, such as:

  • Applying for new credit in your name (including home mortgages).
  • Accessing all your financial accounts and moving the money out or running up multiple credit cards.
  • Getting medical treatment in your name, which will make you liable for the bills.
  • Pretending to be you when arrested.
  • Opening accounts in your name, such as utility and phone accounts.
  • Stealing your income tax refund.

When identity theft reaches that level, you can be forced to change your entire identity, by getting a new Social Security number in replacing all your accounts.

It can take years to dig out of that kind of mess, as well as a fortune in legal fees.

Identity theft is one of those classic areas where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Much of that prevention is within your control.

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