Incoming text from my credit-card company:
“Hi Tony, did you use your card to purchase three gallons of gas and a package of Chips Ahoy cookies at an Arco station in Mesa, AZ? Reply Y for yes and N for no.”
I reply N, they tell me I won’t be responsible for those charges, and I should destroy my card and they’ll send me a new one with a new number.
Easy peasy, right? If you’re like me and this is the closest you’ve ever come to being a victim of identity theft, then you may have unrealistic ideas about the full impact that identity-theft crimes can have on their victim’s lives and livelihoods.
Fortunately, the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC), a non-profit organization dedicated to helping people and businesses prevent and recover from identity-theft crimes, has recently published its 2021 Consumer Aftermath Report, based on a survey of individuals who have contacted the organization in the past year for help dealing with identity-theft incidents. The results are chilling, with respondents reporting long-lasting, truly devastating effects.
Real lives, real damage
Reading through some of the victims’ statements is a sobering experience:
- “I’ve always been poor, but this entire year long problem has made my life a living nightmare!”
- “I couldn’t pay bills, created significant debt, didn’t have enough money to meet our needs and STILL am struggling since I got in debt so badly and can’t get any of the stimulus payments to help!”
- “I am homeless and it devastated my life.”
- “I am ready to give up altogether.”
By the numbers
While those individual statements are heartbreaking, the real story, of course, is in the numbers. Here’s a small sampling of the survey’s statistical findings:
- 75% of victims of pandemic-related identity fraud in 2020 said their issues were still unresolved as of April 2021.
- 21% of victims say they lost more than $20,000 to identity criminals.
- 33% of victims during the pandemic did not have enough money to buy food or pay for utilities.
- 13% have been unable to get a temp or permanent job as a result of identity misuse.
- 10% of pre-pandemic victims had suicidal thoughts.
Similar numbers tell of lost housing, denied unemployment benefits, lost stimulus payments, huge debts to the IRS, and more.
The report also includes eye-opening demographic information about victims who contacted the ITRC for help, including:
- 21% report income over $75,000, while 17% report earning less than $20,000 per year.
- While racial breakdowns roughly match the general population, the gender gap — 37% male versus 63% female — is striking.
- Age appears to make no difference at all — every age group had nearly identical representation.
- 61% had a college degree, 25% had some college, and only 14% had just a high school degree or less education.
- 29% were repeat victims.
How to protect yourself
As an individual, there are a number of steps you can take to reduce your risk of identity theft:
- Check your credit report regularly. For example, annualcreditreport.com lets you check your report from each of the three major credit reporting agencies once per year at no charge. You can also sign up for a commercial credit-monitoring service that will alert you to any significant changes or suspicious events.
- You can request the reporting agencies to place a security or credit freeze on your report, which blocks any attempt to obtain credit or, e.g., open a bank account using your identity. This does involve some hassle, as you must lift the freeze each time you want to legitimately apply for credit, but it may be worth it. This is an especially good idea for parents of young children, who won’t have legitimate credit inquiries anyway.
- Be extremely cautious about what you post on social media. Never respond to posts that ask you to, for example, find out what your band name is by combining your mother’s maiden name and your birth date.
- Follow guidelines for using unique and complex passwords for all online accounts.
- Don’t let online retailers store your credit card information “for faster checkout on future purchases.”
- Be alert to email, phone, and social media scams. When in doubt, toss it out. Remember that legitimate companies will never contact you directly and then ask you to confirm your identity by providing passwords, social security numbers, or other credentials.
At the organizational level, the same security strategies that protect your data from cyberattacks can also protect your users from identity theft:
- Implement a modern email security infrastructure that includes robust, AI-powered anti-phishing technology, such as Barracuda Phishing and Impersonation Protection.
- Help all your users to get better at spotting and reporting phishing attempts and other malicious emails with an advanced, computer-based training program such as Barracuda Security Awareness Training.
- More generally, ensure your entire security infrastructure — including network and app/API security, email security, access controls, and data protection — is up to date and appropriate for your specific mix of cloud-based and on-premises resources. Vulnerabilities in any of these vectors can be exploited to steal information that may expose your employees, customers, partners, and others to identity theft.
Awareness is the key
Be sure to look over the whole report — it’s in an easy-to-digest infographic format — to get a clear picture of just how bad identity theft can be.
And once you’ve seen how identity theft can truly devastate a person’s life with long-lasting consequences, the next time somebody uses your credit-card number to buy some beef jerky in a state you’ve never visited, you can be grateful that it wasn’t much, much worse.
Tony Burgess is a twenty-year veteran of the IT security industry and is Barracuda’s Senior Copywriter for Content and Customer Marketing. In this role, he researches complex technical subjects and translates findings into clear, useful, human-readable prose.
You can connect with Tony on LinkedIn here.