How to prevent identity theft and fraud

Cyber security threats are constantly on the rise, as cyber criminals become increasingly more adept at finding new ways into individuals’ private and personal information. In 2023, more than 353 million people were impacted by data breaches. Reports suggest that among these, fraud accounted for 2.5 million, while identity theft was at 1.1 million.

As the numbers indicate, identity theft and fraud are widespread issues in today’s digital world. With increasing reliance on technology at home and in the workplace, our personal information has become more accessible to hackers and fraudsters.

Whether it’s through phishing scams, data breaches, or social media hacking, vigilance is crucial in protecting your identity. Here’s everything you need to know about preventing identity theft and fraud.

What is identity theft?

Identity theft is when someone steals your personal information to commit fraud. This can include your name, address, date of birth, Social Security Number (if you’re in the US) or National Insurance number (if you’re in the UK), credit card or bank account details, and more.

Once fraudsters have this information, they can open accounts, make purchases, and apply for loans in your name without your consent.

Identity theft prevention methods

Preventing identity theft requires a multifaceted approach. Here are some effective methods to safeguard your identity.

Monitor your credit report

Regularly check your credit rating and report from agencies like Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion to spot any suspicious activity. You may be entitled to a free report annually from each agency, so make sure to take advantage of this service.

Use strong passwords

Use unique, complex passwords for each online account you have. Combine letters, numbers, and symbols to create strong passwords. Consider using a password manager to generate and store passwords securely.

Secure your devices

Keep your computer, smartphone, and other devices protected with updated antivirus software. Be cautious when connecting to public wifi networks, as they may not be secure and hackers may be able to access your information through them.

Stay safe on public Wifi networks

If you do use public wifi networks, avoid accessing sensitive accounts or entering personal information unless you’re using a virtual private network (VPN).

Be wary of phishing scams

Don’t click on links or download attachments from suspicious emails, texts, or social media messages. These could be phishing attempts designed to steal your personal details.

Protect personal documents

Keep important documents like your passport, driving licence, credit card statements, and bank statements in a secure location to avoid ID theft. Shred any documents with personal information and account numbers before discarding them.

Set up account alerts

Many banks, lenders, and credit card companies offer account alerts that notify you of suspicious activity. Enable these alerts to stay informed about any unusual transactions.

Secure your mail

If possible, use a locked mailbox or a Royal Mail Post Office (PO) box to receive mail. Be cautious when sharing personal details through the mail.

Limit personal information online

Be mindful of the information you share on social media and other online platforms. Avoid posting personal details like your full name, address, or date of birth. 

Enable two-factor authentication

Use two-factor authentication (2FA) whenever possible. This adds an extra layer of security by requiring a second form of authentication when you try to log into an online account. These second forms could be a code sent to your mobile phone or a memorable word.

Keep software updated

Regularly update your devices and software to patch any vulnerabilities that could be exploited by identity thieves.

Use secure websites

Look for the padlock symbol and “https://” in the URL of the website you are on to check it is secure before entering sensitive information. Never share information like card numbers over websites that aren’t secure.

Stay up-to-date on data breaches

According to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), if a UK company has a data breach which is likely to result in a high risk of adversely affecting individuals’ rights and freedoms, those individuals must be informed. If this happens to a company you have a personal account with, they will usually email you to inform you of this, so be sure to open and read these emails to see how severely your personal data has been compromised. Always change your password for the affected account when a data breach occurs.

Check privacy settings

Regularly review and update the privacy settings on your social media accounts and other online platforms to control who can see your information.

What to do when you’ve been a victim of identity theft or fraud

If you suspect you’ve been a victim of identity fraud, take immediate action to minimise the damage:

  • Contact your bank or credit card company: Inform them of the fraudulent activity and ask them to freeze or close any affected accounts. They can also help you dispute unauthorised charges.
  • File a report with law enforcement: Report the identity theft to your local police department and obtain a copy of the police report. This documentation may be necessary when disputing fraudulent charges.
  • Contact the major credit bureaus: Alert the major credit score bureaus of the identity theft. Request that they place a fraud alert on your credit file and provide you with a copy of your credit report.
  • UK citizens: Consider a Protective Registration: You can apply for Protective Registration with Cifas, a fraud prevention service. This adds an extra layer of protection to your credit file, and ensures companies carry out additional checks to make sure it’s really you when your details are used to apply for a product or service.
  • US citizens: Report the identity theft to the FTC: File a report with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) through their website. The FTC provides resources and guidance for identity theft victims.
  • Monitor your credit report: Continue to monitor your credit report for any suspicious activity. You may also consider enrolling in a credit monitoring service.
  • Be vigilant for future scams: Remain vigilant for future scams or identity theft attempts. Be cautious with unsolicited phone calls, emails, or messages requesting personal information.

Identity theft and fraud can have serious consequences, but by taking proactive steps to protect your personal information you can reduce the risk of falling victim to these crimes. Stay informed, stay vigilant, and take action to safeguard your identity.

Learn the skills that keep private information safe

If fraud prevention and outsmarting cyber criminals is something you’re passionate about, prepare yourself for a career in this fast-paced and exciting growth industry by studying an online MSc Computer Science with Cyber Security degree with the University of York.

Taught part-time, you can fit your studies around your current commitments while connecting with global peers and growing your network as part of this well-rounded Masters degree.