The Now: What is Identity Theft?

Lesson 32: What is Identity Theft?


What is identity theft?

Identity theft is when a person’s personal or financial information is stolen and used. It could be that person's name, credit card information, Social Security number, or medical insurance details. Victims are often devastated by this theft, which can result in months and even years of having to deal with the aftermath of fraudulent activity.

Identity theft can have a tremendous impact on your life in several ways. Once they have your personal information, identity thieves can impersonate you and purchase items with your stolen credit card number or take out loans for big-ticket items like a car. They can also file tax returns and claim your refund, or get expensive medical work done using your health insurance information.

Thieves have even been known to use stolen identities when they get arrested, causing criminal charges to appear on the records of innocent people. They also steal the identities of children because most parents do not monitor their children’s credit, especially before they are too young to use it.

How does identity theft occur?

Unfortunately, there are many ways your identity can be stolen, so you must take every precaution to protect your information. Thieves can gain your info by:

  • Hacking into a website and accessing customer records, like the Anthem health insurance data breach in 2015 (learn how to protect yourself from data breaches here)
  • Going through your trash or mail and finding sensitive information
  • Stealing your wallet, gaining your ID and credit cards
  • Looking over your shoulder or eavesdropping on your conversation while you’re handling sensitive information in public
  • Gaining access to your online accounts because you used a weak password (learn how to create strong passwords here)
  • Skimming your information from card readers hidden in places like ATMs, gas station pumps, and checkout lanes (learn about common credit card scams here)

How do I prevent it?

Thankfully, there are steps you can take to prevent your identity from being compromised:

  • Always read your bank and credit card statements carefully.
  • When making a purchase online, make sure the website is secure by locating the padlock in the address bar of your web browser.
  • Never use a debit card for online purchases. If a website is hacked or if a thief is able to monitor your activity, he or she can drain your bank account quickly. Use a credit card for online purchases instead because you won’t be held responsible for any fraudulent activity.
  • Don’t carry your Social Security card in your wallet. Keep it locked up at home.
  • Shred papers that have sensitive information.
  • Don’t enter sensitive information on a public computer, like at a library.
  • Check your credit report every year for free. Click here to learn how to obtain a free credit report.

What if my identity has been stolen?

If you believe your identity has been stolen, you must take action as soon as possible before the thief does more damage. Recovering and repairing your identity is not a simple or easy process, and it will involve a lot of phone calls, letters, and emails. This process will vary depending on which country you're in, but if you're in the United States you should take the following steps:

  1. Freeze all accounts where fraud occurred.
  2. Put out a fraud alert with one of the three major credit reporting agencies.
  3. Get a copy of your credit report and find any problems.
  4. Report the theft to the Federal Trade Commission.
  5. Report the theft to your local police.

Once you have completed this, you will need to start clearing up your credit reports and statements. Sadly, it could take months or years to completely fix what the thief has done. For more details on recovering from identity theft, visit, which is owned and operated by the U.S. government.

Identity theft is a total invasion of your privacy and livelihood, and repairing the damage could take a long time. By taking the proper precautions, you can minimize the chances of a thief stealing your identity.