Do you always keep your wallet or purse in a safe place—or do you occasionally misplace it or leave it in the backseat of your car or another vulnerable spot when you are distracted by life’s daily demands? If you said yes to the latter, you are not alone.
Unfortunately, when these everyday essentials are stolen or go missing, identity theft or fraud often follows. Your credit cards, driver’s license, and other personal information enable criminals to commit fraud or crimes, all in your name.
A new study examining the claims made in 2011 by Travelers’ customers insured against identity fraud shows that stolen or misplaced items are still a major cause of these crimes. Of the roughly two-thirds able to pinpoint the source of their identity theft, stolen wallets and pocketbooks topped the list.
Because identity thieves also acquire valuable personal information in less obvious ways—from sorting through trash for bank statements to stealing pre-approved credit card applications from the mail—other customers could not say how their identities were stolen. Often, people are not aware that someone is illegally using their credit or dipping into their bank account until it appears in their monthly statement.
Our study also revealed other common fraud sources. In the number two spot: a stolen or compromised driver’s license, Social Security card, or other form of personal identification. In some instances, thieves accessed this critical information by copying identifying numbers from an employee badge, student ID, or Medicare card, all of which carried the member’s Social Security number.
Not surprisingly, burglaries rated third, followed by cyber-breaches (including Internet scams) and old-fashioned forgeries. According to a separate study released earlier this year by Javelin Strategy & Research, data breaches, which typically expose Social Security, debit, and credit card numbers, are on the rise nationally.
The high cost of identity theft
Identity theft is not rare. Figures released in 2011 by the U.S. Justice Department show that about 8.6 million households experienced some form of identity theft in 2010; the direct cost to households—$13.3 billion.
Compromised Social Security cards, driver’s licenses, or other confidential data can help criminals acquire new debit and credit card accounts in your name—as well as loans, medical services, and tax refunds. Though the financial services industry has imposed tougher safeguards against identity theft, the trove of personal information—birthdates, phone numbers, and so on—shared on social media sites has provided new fodder for criminal imposters.
When payments for fraudulent accounts go unpaid (criminals rarely pick up the tab), your credit score can suffer. It can take considerable time and money to restore it.
How to protect yourself against identity theft
- Always secure your purse or wallet in a safe place.
- Carry only essentials. Leave the rest of your cards and critical documents in a discreet, burglar–proof space.
- Annually check your free credit report from each of the national credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.
- Be careful about sharing personal information on social media.
- If you get a data breach notice, monitor your accounts closely and change your passwords.
- Do not put account numbers or any other unnecessary information on envelopes of outgoing mail.
- Know when card statements arrive, and if they are late, remember to call.
- Shred old bills and other unnecessary financial records.
- Consider buying identity fraud insurance, a relatively inexpensive add-on to your renters or homeowners insurance policy. It typically reimburses the cost of reclaiming your identity—attorney and notary fees and replacement of your identification—and should include high-quality resolution services. It is a low-cost investment against a high-expense crime.
Joe Reynolds is an identity fraud product manager at Travelers.