In the past six years, identity theft has cost Americans a staggering $112 billion. Just in the last year, the Consumer Sentinel Network (CSN), which compiles the millions of complaints of fraud and identity theft received by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), reported 490,220 identity fraud complaints - a 3% increase from 2014.
Complaints of identity theft reported to the CSN were mostly related to tax return fraud, making up over 45% of the identity theft complaints. This was followed by credit card fraud in the form of creation of new accounts (11%).
The CSN also monitors which states the complaints come from. Missouri, Connecticut, Florida, Maryland, and Illinois made up the top five states respectively, as these states had the most identity theft complaints per capita.
In addition, the report found that certain groups are more likely to be targeted by identity theft.
Groups targeted by identity theft
Anyone can be a victim of identity theft, however, certain groups are more vulnerable.
The CSN 2015 report found that 24% of victims of identity theft were 50 to 59 years old, followed by 40 to 49 year olds, who accounted for 20%. These two age groups made up the majority of the complaints received.
Military personnel and their spouses are also particularly vulnerable to identity theft. Identity theft accounted for 30% of all military consumer complaints received. Military retirees and veterans reported the highest amount of military scams, making up 65% of fraud complaints. The second highest group of targeted individuals were dependent spouses of service members, accounting for 13% of complaints. Active duty service members made up 7% of the complaints.
Medicare recipients have also been targeted by fraudsters in the past. Up until recently all Medicare cards had social security numbers on them, putting the cardholder at great risk to identity theft. Different forms of Medicare fraud are common and the best way for recipients to protect themselves is to be wary of unsolicited calls asking for personal information.
How to prevent identity theft
There are certain steps that you can take that will help protect you from identity theft.
1. Protect your social security number
Your social security number serves as your proof of identity. If stolen, it gives criminals access to your existing financial accounts and the ability to set up more.
Protect it by memorizing your number for use, rather than taking your social security card on the go. And only share as needed with official sources you can verify - not over the phone or by email.
2. Safely store or shred critical documents
Your social security card isn't the only document that can put your identity at risk. Sensitive information is regularly mailed to your home, such as in bank statements and credit card solicitations.
To protect from theft, collect your mail promptly - and have the post office put it on hold when you can't. Store documents that need to be retained securely under lock and key, and shred the rest before discarding.
3. Secure yourself online
Identity thieves can also easily obtain personal information through the internet. So be cautious what you share online, such as your birth date or maiden name - which can be used to answer account security questions.
Protect yourself further by setting social media privacy settings to high, using complex, unique account passwords with a password manager and disabling cookies that track your computer. Also ensure your computer's anti-virus and anti-spyware software is up-to-date.
4. Monitor banking and credit reports closely
Online banking makes it easy to regularly monitor your account transactions for unauthorized purchases. While periodically checking your credit report can alert you to damages to your financial standing due to fraud.
Many financial institutions now offer services such as email alerts and credit freezes when they detect suspicious behavior. Consumers who don't take advantage of these services suffered a 185% greater expense than identity theft victims who did.
Reviewing your credit report regularly, setting up credit alerts for any changes in activity, and running a self-background check once a year will also help protect you from identity theft.