In 2013, Bill Gates learned one day that a hacker had leaked his credit card information and social insurance number online. Despite his billions, his identity had been stolen.

While it may be slightly ironic that a billionaire computer-wizard fell victim to such a crime, it just goes to show the extent of this issue. It can happen to anyone. Thousands of people in Canada are impacted by identity theft each year. So what is this threat? And how should you deal with it? Let us take a closer look.

What is identity theft?

The name says it all – Identity theft is when someone uses your personal information without your consent. Criminals often use your identity to commit various crimes and frauds, including:

  • Spending money from your bank account
  • Applying for loans and credit cards under your name
  • Using your identity to defraud others

Recently, identity theft has become a prevalent problem as more people are using online technologies. As Statistics Canada reported in 2017, there were a reported 17,000 identity-theft related cases in 2017 alone, with this number only projected to keep rising.

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How can someone steal my identity?

To steal your identity, a criminal must obtain some of your personal information. This can include your Social Insurance Number (SIN), your passwords, your banking information, your bank and credit card PINs, or even your passport or driver’s license.

While criminals in the past could only typically look through your old mail for your personal information, the internet has given them many more routes to obtain the information they want. Today, your identity can be stolen through a number of online scams, viruses and spyware, and other sophisticated methods.

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Who is targeted?

Do you have a SIN? Do you have a bank account? If you answered yes to any of the previous questions, then your identity can be a valuable thing to steal. Even if we imagine that there is no way your bank account can be touched, your identity can still be used to defraud others.

How can I avoid this?

Sometimes, you are not to blame for your identity being stolen. The news is ripe with stories about big credit companies getting hacked resulting in hundreds of thousands of people’s personal information being leaked. One such example is Equifax, who was discovered in 2017 to have been robbed of the personal information of over 145 million people.

Let’s look at a few steps that everyone should take.

  1. Act like your information can be stolen.
    Perhaps the biggest mistake that people make is that they do not act like they can be a victim to identity theft. Make sure you think about your actions before you do them. Whenever someone asks you for personal information, whether it be over the internet, the telephone, or any other medium, be sure that you know what they need that information for and establish that they will keep your information safe.
  2. Practice internet security.
    If you are at all online – and who isn’t these days – be sure you are safe. This means making sure you have strong passwords you change often, that you are using anti-virus software, and that you avoid any suspicious websites.
  3. Never give out more information than necessary.
    If you always fill out only the minimum amount of information on surveys and forms, there is less information for thieves to steal. Likewise, adopt a similar strategy on social media which can be publicly accessed. Occasionally, identities can be stolen by simply consulting someone’s social media accounts for obvious answers to their security questions.
  4. Be knowledgeable about your banking habits.
    This includes knowing your billing cycle, your credit score, and your purchases. Any irregularities can be evidence of identity theft.
  5. Keep your important physical documents safe.
    Despite our reliance on the internet nowadays, we still get a lot of important information through the physical mail. Be sure to always discard this important correspondence properly by shredding it before recycling it.
  6. Protect your banking information.
    Always be sure to keep your PIN numbers secret and never let your bank cards be out of your sight. Technologies such as card scanners make banking cards valuable targets.

How do I know if I’ve been affected?

Unfortunately, victims of identity theft often do not notice immediately that something malicious is going on. For instance, many criminals even adopt a strategy of only stealing a small amount of money per month, hoping that less observant victims will not notice. Similarly, imagine someone just opened a credit card under your name. It may be quite a while until you notice that they did that – and often you will only notice once you get an unexpected bill in the mail.

To be frank, most victims will not discover that their identity has been stolen until they notice an unexplained expense. The best way to know if you’ve been affected before you’ve lost thousands is simply to be aware of your banking. Explore any unexplained expense you see as soon as possible.

What should I do if I think my identity has been stolen?

If you think you have evidence of your identity being stolen, the RCMP has a useful guide here. Be sure to reach out to local authorities, as well as your banking and credit institutions as soon as you can. Try to find out how the criminal has accessed your identity and be sure to improve your security in the future to prevent this from happening again.

Are there other types of identity theft?

While we mainly focused on identity theft for financial gain in this piece, there are other motivations for stealing your identity. A rising form of identity theft is accessing someone’s social media accounts, for either revenge or other illicit intentions.

But the underlying message concerning any form of identity theft is that you should care about your information, as there is always someone out there who can benefit from it. So, take the effort to protect your information. If you don’t, you may become the next victim.

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