Living in an increasingly digital world is great for comfort and convenience, but there's a downside to greater reach in the digital realm: It creates new avenues for theft and fraud.
"Data theft, for both companies and individuals, is one of the top security concerns for 2017," said Garit Boothe, a technology specialist at Frontier Communications. "There's a growing threat to personal information security, but a lot of consumers are left in the dark as to how to deal with the effects."
Yet, despite this growing threat, many people are unfamiliar with the details of credit card fraud and identity theft, let alone how to handle the aftermath of a breach.
In the face of rising risk, knowing what you're up against can help you better prepare for and manage a potential loss. The average person is likely to encounter either credit card theft and identity theft, or both, in his or her lifetime. Let's take a closer look at how those two types of information fraud differ, and what you can do to handle the effects of each.
What is credit card theft?
Credit card theft is a type of identity theft that occurs when someone accesses your credit card account and uses it to make unauthorized purchases. Credit card theft has, unfortunately, become a common crime. According to a 2015 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), part of the U.S. Department of Justice, 8.6 million Americans ages 16 or older were victims of credit card fraud in 2014.
What is identity theft?
Though the terms "credit card theft" and "identity theft" are often used interchangeably, identity theft refers to a wider — and often much more serious — set of crimes. The Justice Department splits identity theft into three categories.
1. Fraud or misuse of an existing account is the category into which credit card theft falls. This crime occurs when someone obtains your credit card number or bank-account information, and uses that information to go on a spending spree. Passing bad checks on someone else's account also qualifies. This is by far the most common type of identity theft, accounting for 16.4 million of the 17.6 million total victims in 2014.
2. Fraud or misuse of a new account occurs when someone uses your personal information to open a new account. This new account could be relatively small, such as a checking account or a new credit card; it can also be much larger, such as a fraudulent mortgage to buy a house. Roughly 1.1 million victims reported this type of identity theft in 2014.
3. Fraud or misuse of personal information covers all other events involving improper use of your personal data, including the use of stolen information to get a job, receive medical care, rent an apartment or provide a false identity to law enforcement. This category accounted for 713,000 of the victims in 2014.
Recovering from credit card theft
While dealing with credit card theft isn't anyone's idea of fun, the recovery process is pretty simple. A few solid federal laws protect consumers from bearing the responsibility of fraudulent charges. No matter how much was stolen, you can be held liable for a maximum of only $50 when you report fraud on a credit card account. If you report the fraud within 60 days of learning of it, even that cost may be waived.
Debit cards are a bit different. In order to limit your liability if your card was physically lost or stolen, you need to report the loss quickly. Your liability stands at $50 for the first two days after the discovery of fraud, and then jumps to $500 between the two-day and 60-day mark. Beyond that, you might be accountable for all charges. If your physical card wasn't taken, however, there's more leniency; as long as you report the fraudulent use within 60 days, you won't be liable for a cent.
In some cases, thieves aren't even able to use the card in the first place. Many card issuers automatically detect suspicious activity and put a block on the card to prevent any future charges. Some companies will even call cardholders to alert them to the attempted use.
Recovering from identity theft
Recovering from full-blown identity theft, in which fraudulent accounts are opened or fraudulent documents are issued in your name, can take years. This type of fraud can be complex and far-reaching, involving multiple avenues of misuse — some of which may go undiscovered until a collection agency attempts to collect a debt that you weren't even aware existed. It wreaks havoc on credit scores and sometimes places extraordinary stress on victims and their families.
Not all of the effects of identity theft are as easy to quantify or resolve, however. For instance, identity-theft victims often suffer serious emotional consequences, though that element of recovery is rarely discussed. But imagine losing your dream home because you couldn't get a mortgage, due to years'-old identity theft of which you weren't aware.
A full 36 percent of victims report suffering moderate to severe emotional distress as a result of identity theft. A recent Equifax report detailed the psychological toll identity theft can take on its victims, noting that many of these individuals experience emotional effects similar to those experienced by victims of assault or home invasion.
If you've been the victim of identity theft, immediately consult the federal government's online resources for ID-theft management. With just a few clicks, you can report fraud and build a custom recovery plan to handle your situation. Once that's in place, consider consulting with a therapist or psychologist to help manage the emotional fallout.
Avoiding identity theft
If you've never been a victim of identity theft, count your blessings. The good news is that minimizing your risk of identity theft is easier that it may seem. Here are a few tips:
1. Shred sensitive documents before throwing them away. Anything that has personal or financial information — canceled checks, credit-card statements, even junk mail from a bank or credit-card company — is a potential gold mine to an identity thief. When shopping for a good shredder (opens in new tab), look for a model that crosscuts the paper into tiny pieces, rather than just into strips that can be pasted back together.
2. Erase computer and smartphone hard drives. Clean out your personal information before getting rid of old PCs, tablets and smartphones. It is surprisingly easy for someone to get access to personal data if the hard drive hasn't been totally reformatted and cleaned.
3. Use antivirus software on your computer. Antivirus software will stop most attacks, as long as you let it update every day. Also, don't download anything that you don't trust completely.
4. Check your credit reports regularly for discrepancies. You can get up to three credit reports free every year. Reading them can help you head off any potential issues before they become too big.
5. Don't give out personal information over email. You don’t trust everyone you meet on the street, so why would you trust people who email you out of the blue? A reputable company won't email you to solicit personal information, so if you're seeing messages asking for your Social Security number, it's likely a ploy.
6. Make your passwords strong and unique. Passwords often act as both your first and last lines of defense against information theft. A strong password should be fairly long and use both numbers and symbols in addition to letters. If you have trouble remembering all of those complex passwords, use a password manager.
Identity theft is serious business, and it often goes much further than just losing a credit card and making a few phone calls. But there is hope. Use the knowledge in this article to keep your private information private and your identity secure.