With the widespread adoption of digital platforms, identity theft has become a highly pervasive issue. Threat actors use deceptive schemes like phishing scams and malware attacks to steal individuals’ private information and, ultimately, their identities.

Identity theft, a widely prevalent cybercrime, involves appropriating another person’s identity details, typically for financial benefit, by assuming their persona. This illicit act can have devastating consequences on an individual’s life.

As this growing cyber threat becomes increasingly common, it’s important to understand precisely what identity theft entails, its associated risks, and what measures to take to protect against such risks.

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Identity Theft Definition

Identity theft is when someone steals your personal information, such as your name, Social Security number, bank account numbers, or credit card data, to commit fraud or other criminal activities. Such stolen personal information is typically used to make unauthorized purchases, open new accounts, apply for loans, or file fraudulent tax returns. It’s like a thief swiping your identity and exploiting it for their own benefit.

Identity thieves use sophisticated methods to steal personal information from unsuspecting victims. They use social engineering and phishing schemes, malware attacks, skimming devices, and even old-fashioned tactics like dumpster diving to get their hands on sensitive data.

Identity theft can cause significant financial damage and emotional distress. Victims feel violated and vulnerable while trying to reclaim their identities. Without effective protection to mitigate such threats, it can take months or even years to fully recover from an incident, both financially and emotionally.

How Identity Theft Happens

Identity theft is a serious issue that has seen an alarming increase in recent years. This crime can occur in several ways, including:

Phishing Schemes

In phishing schemes, cybercriminals impersonate legitimate organizations to trick individuals into revealing their sensitive data, such as credit card details and answers to security questions. This deception often involves fabricating emails, text messages, websites, and even phone calls to con individuals into believing they’re interacting with a legitimate brand – all to steal private information.

Hacking

Without adequate protection over your hardware and software, cybercriminals can gain unauthorized access to computers or networks to steal personal data. Hackers can install malware or exploit vulnerabilities in the system’s security infrastructure, providing access to confidential files with sensitive data or the potential breach of large databases.

Data Breaches

Data breaches involve unauthorized access to databases containing vast amounts of user information, including financial account details, making them a goldmine for identity thieves. Cyber attackers can easily steal names, credit card numbers, and other sensitive information to mimic someone else’s identity.

Skimming

This technique involves stealing credit card information during an otherwise legal transaction. For instance, when you hand over your card issued by your bank at a restaurant or store, the employee might swipe it through a device that copies the card’s information from its magnetic strip.

Shoulder Surfing

This old-school method entails looking over someone’s shoulder while they enter their PIN at an ATM or fill out forms with personal data at public places like banks and post offices. While some businesses and facilities implement technologies to help prevent such activities, shoulder surfing is still a frequently used method that allows attackers to steal people’s personal information.

Theft of Physical Items

Theft of physical items remains a common method identity thieves use. This could be purses and wallets containing ID cards and credit cards, mail directly from mailboxes, especially pre-approved credit offers; new checks; tax information, etc., all usually stored in non-secure locations around homes and workplaces.

It’s crucial for business owners, IT teams, and cybersecurity professionals to not only understand these threats but also put preventive measures in place to prevent them. Securing any documents with personally identifiable information (PII) goes a long way toward preventing identity theft.

Types of Identity Theft

In today’s digital age, many different types of identity theft have become rampant. Understanding this crime’s various forms is critical to safeguarding your personal information.

  • Financial Identity Theft: This common form of identity theft happens when thieves steal your financial account information, such as credit card or bank account numbers. They often gain access by tricking you into revealing these details online or stealing them from unsecured locations or databases.
  • Medical Identity Theft: In medical identity theft, criminals misuse someone else’s health insurance information to receive medical services. This type of crime leads to financial loss and incorrect entries in the victim’s medical records, which could have dangerous consequences.
  • Social Security Identity Theft: Theft involving social security numbers allows criminals to open new lines of credit under your name, potentially causing significant damage before detection by credit bureaus and reflected on credit reports.
  • Child Identity Theft: Here, an identity thief uses a child’s social security number to carry out different types of fraud.
  • Synthetic Identity Theft: In this case, perpetrators combine real and fake information to create an entirely new identity.
  • Tax-related Identity Theft: This occurs when someone uses stolen personal data (like social security numbers) to file tax returns with the IRS and claim fraudulent refunds.
  • Elder Fraud: Older adults are often targeted for their typically good credit scores. For example, scammers might pose as Medicare representatives asking for sensitive info over phone calls.
  • Social Media Identity Theft: Criminals may exploit lax privacy settings on social media platforms or fabricate fake social media accounts to mimic an individual’s identity for malicious purposes.
  • Online Shopping Fraud: Cyber attackers have been known to hack into vulnerable or insecure online shopping platforms to obtain private customer information, such as credit card numbers.

Remember — always be cognizant about where you share any sort of confidential detail and use secure storage methods at all times while handling critical documents like passports, credit cards, or driving licenses.

Warning Signs of Identity Theft

Because identity theft can take many different forms, the warning signs aren’t always transparently obvious. Here are some common warning signs that your identity or sensitive personal information has been stolen.

  • Receiving bills for unfamiliar expenses or collection notices for accounts you did not open
  • Missing bills or statements
  • Unfamiliar activity on your credit report, such as new accounts or inquiries
  • Receiving credit cards or other financial account statements for which you did not apply
  • Receiving medical bills for healthcare services that you did not receive
  • Being denied credit or loans for no apparent reason
  • Receiving calls from debt collectors for accounts you did not open
  • Not receiving mail or having mail go missing from your mailbox

If you notice any of these warning signs, it is important to take action immediately to protect yourself from further harm. You can report identity theft to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) online at IdentityTheft.gov. You should also contact the fraud department at your credit card issuers, bank, and other places where you have accounts.

What Are the Consequences of Falling Victim to Identity Theft?

The aftermath of identity theft can be severe and far-reaching, from financial damages to emotional and social ramifications.

  • Credit Damage: Unauthorized charges or new accounts opened in your name can significantly drop your credit score.
  • Loss of Funds: Thieves may drain your bank account or make purchases using your credit card information, leaving you with substantial debt.
  • Damaged Reputation: Thieves using your stolen information for illegal activities can damage your personal relationships and even result in wrongful criminal records against you.
  • Mental Stress: Recovering from identity theft is often time-consuming and stressful, leading to anxiety and depression in some cases.
  • Legal Problems: Victims of identity theft may be falsely accused of crimes committed by the identity thief.
  • Time and Effort to Resolve: Victims of identity theft may spend significant time and effort resolving the issue, including contacting financial institutions, credit bureaus, and law enforcement agencies.

Taking immediate action is critical if you suspect you have fallen victim to identity theft to minimize the damage and prevent further harm.

How to Recover from Identity Theft

If you’ve fallen victim to identity theft, don’t panic. Address the issue promptly and take immediate action using these steps to get started:

  • Report the Fraud: Contact your bank or credit card company right away if you notice any suspicious activity on your accounts. File a report with the FTC if you haven’t already.
  • Contact Credit Bureaus: Reach out to one of the three major credit bureaus — Experian, Equifax, or TransUnion — and place a fraud alert on your credit reports.
  • Close Compromised Accounts: Shut down any accounts that have been compromised or opened fraudulently in your name.
  • Gather copies of documents used to open accounts or make fraudulent transactions: Obtain any copies of your credit reports and correct errors. Make a copy of your report, as banks, creditors, and other entities will probably ask for it.
  • Create an Identity Theft Report: This report will help you deal with credit reporting companies, debt collectors, and businesses that gave the identity thief goods or services.
  • Change account passwords and PINs: Update all passwords, PINs, and login information for all potentially affected accounts, including your email.

Recovery may seem complicated, but necessary to recover your financial security and emotional well-being.

Protecting Yourself from Identity Theft

In an era when nearly all day-to-day functions have been digitized, protecting your personal information is more important than ever. Here are some tips to help you stay safe from identity theft threats.

  • Use strong passwords: Don’t make it easy for hackers to guess your passwords. Use password best practices and create complex, hard-to-crack passwords by combining letters, numbers, and symbols for maximum security.
  • Shred personal documents: Don’t let identity thieves go dumpster diving for your personal information. Shred any tangible paperwork that contains private or sensitive information before throwing it in the trash.
  • Monitor your credit report: Keep an eye on your credit report to catch any suspicious activity early on. Services like Experian and Credit Karma make it easy to track your credit score.
  • Exercise caution with public WiFi: Be cautious when using public WiFi networks or avoid them entirely whenever possible, as it’s an easy way for hackers to intercept your personal information.
  • Be careful online and on the phone: Don’t give out personal information unless you initiate contact and trust the recipient. Beware of attempts to deceive you into revealing confidential data.
  • Use credit monitoring services: Take advantage of credit monitoring services to help monitor your credit report and alert you in the event of any suspicious activities. Federal legislation mandates that the trio of nationwide consumer credit reporting agencies — namely Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion — provide you with a complimentary credit report annually upon request. Moreover, they have streamlined the process for carrying out an array of credit-oriented tasks, making them easily accessible via your computer.
  • Report suspicious activity: If you see any suspicious activity with your bank, credit card company or credit reporting agency, report it immediately.

In addition to these measures, routinely monitor your bank accounts, credit card statements, and credit reports for any unusual activity. With more operations conducted digitally — such as banking, registering accounts, or making purchases — security vulnerabilities have skyrocketed.

Preventing Identity Theft in the Workplace

Identity theft is a growing concern for businesses and individuals alike. While the topic largely focuses on the individual, organizations can better safeguard their employees’ sensitive information from these potential threats.

Password Security Policies

The first line of defense against identity theft is a robust password security policy. This should include complex password requirements (mix of alphanumeric characters and symbols), frequent changes, and limitations on sharing or reusing credentials across multiple accounts.

Password-Protected Devices

All organizational devices — computers, smartphones, tablets — should be password protected. If an employee loses an unprotected device, anyone who finds it could have easy access to all stored personal information and confidential business information.

Data Privacy Programs

A comprehensive data privacy program ensures that all collected personally identifiable information (PII) remains confidential and secure at every level of your organization — from collection to disposal. Typically, these programs are regularly audited by third parties.

Maintaining PII Confidentiality

Your business must take measures to keep PII confidential both digitally and physically. Encrypt digital files and properly store physical documents in a secure location away from public areas or unsecured networks.

Security Awareness Training

Security awareness training plays an essential role in preventing workplace identity thefts, as well-informed employees are less likely to fall prey to phishing scams or other attempts at stealing their login credentials. This includes understanding how card-issued statements work, along with checking credit reports regularly with major credit bureaus.

How Proofpoint Can Help

Preventing identity theft in a business setting involves educating employees about safe online behavior and implementing robust cybersecurity measures such as firewalls, secure networks, encryption technologies, and an effective Identity Threat Detection & Response (ITDR) solution.

Proofpoint’s ITDR solutions offer comprehensive protection by identifying potential threats in real-time using machine learning algorithms and providing actionable insights for quick response. It focuses on reducing the attack surface by controlling user access based on their roles within the organization.

Included with Proofpoint’s ITDR solutions is Spotlight, which detects escalated privileges and lateral movements made by cyber attackers before they reach their target endpoint. Spotlight uses automated remediation to prevent identity risks and detect real-time identity threats.

Another powerful supplement to ITDR is Proofpoint’s Shadow tool, which helps organizations uncover cloud apps used without official approval — a common source of security breaches leading to identity thefts.

The ever-evolving landscape of cyber threats makes completely eliminating identity theft seem impossible. However, awareness combined with the right tools, like those offered by Proofpoint, can significantly minimize the risks associated with such threats.

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