Your actions put you at more risk
Identity thieves are eager to make you one of the nearly 9 million people in the U.S. whose identities are stolen each year, as estimated by the Federal Trade Commission. Not everyone is at the same risk of becoming part of that statistic; some of us fall victim more easily, often because we put more of ourselves out there.
"We have a society that is so conditioned to share information that it can get in the wrong hands and wreak havoc on our identities," says Joe Mason, senior vice president of Intersections Inc., a Chantilly, Va.-based provider of identity protection services.
How you interact on social networks, use your mobile device and pay for things can make you more susceptible to identity theft. "Some individuals are simply at a much higher risk based on what they do," says Jim Van Dyke, founder and president of Javelin Strategy & Research, a Pleasanton, Calif., market research firm.
From social media users to CEOs, here are some of ID thieves' favorite targets and tips on how to stay out of their sights.
Social media users a growing target
The whole idea behind social networking services such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn is to share information with the others in your network -- friends, relatives, colleagues and so on. But if you're not careful, ID fraudsters also will "like" what you're posting and make you a victim.
"It's partly the over-sharing factor and partly the targeting factor by criminals," says Van Dyke.
You wouldn't think of posting your Social Security number or bank account information on a social network. Just as dangerous is giving out other key bits of your identity that could make it easier for an identity thief to apply for a loan in your name or fool a customer service representative.
Posting personal information such as your date of birth or address puts you at increased risk, says Henry Bagdasarian, founder and president of the Identity Management Institute, an organization that promotes ID theft awareness .
To protect yourself, be stingy with what you reveal about yourself and your family, and think about who'll be reading your updates, comments and tweets. "There is no obligation to accept the invite of a friend request from someone you knew 20 years ago," says Mason.
Paying with plastic makes you vulnerable
Remember cash? Many people have stopped using it and instead pay exclusively with debit and credit cards -- a practice that could increase your chances of becoming a victim of identity thieves.
If your card is stolen, "It gives them a bigger profile of who you are to take over your identity," says Mason, whose company markets a service called Identity Guard.
Using plastic also can make you more vulnerable to a data breach, when hackers gain access to the electronic transaction records of a store or payments processor. Identity theft can follow.
"Individuals that are notified of a data breach have a dramatically increased likelihood of being a fraud victim," says Van Dyke.
Bagdasarian says personal habits that put card users at risk include: relying on debit cards, which don't have the extra layers of fraud protection you get with credit cards; making small and frequent purchases; storing a written-down PIN next to the card; and carrying around too many cards.
Take defensive action by shredding old cards and statements, and monitor your credit and debit card activities. "Use cash as much as possible," Bagdasarian adds. "If you lose a credit card, immediately contact the bank."
Mobile phone users a new target
Smartphones have made it possible for you to do more things on the go, such as accessing your bank account or filing your taxes. But that convenience can make you more vulnerable to identity theft. Most people are careful about putting passwords and antivirus software on their PCs, but that same diligence often doesn't apply to mobile phones.
"Smartphone users are one-third more likely to fall prey than the general public," says Todd Davis, CEO of Tempe, Ariz.-based credit monitoring and ID theft protection company LifeLock Inc. "Only about one-third of people put a password on their phone."
Not taking password protection seriously can be devastating if you lose your phone or it's stolen, since so many people store sensitive data such as financial account numbers on their smartphones.
There's another reason smartphone users are more vulnerable: Many don't give a second thought to using public wireless hot spots. Sometimes those are set up by criminals who use free Wi-Fi to capture sensitive data and hack into mobile devices.
Davis says smartphone users can protect themselves by putting strong passwords on mobile devices and by accessing the Web through a phone carrier's data service instead of free public Wi-Fi.
Children aren't immune
Babies now routinely get Social Security numbers because the numbers are necessary for parents wanting to claim children as dependents on income tax returns. The identifying numbers typically go unmonitored for years, giving criminals plenty of time to damage a child's credit and identity.
"It's a growing problem because children are soft targets," says Bagdasarian. "They are basically under the radar."
One study found there are more than 140,000 cases of identity theft involving children every year. "The reason the criminals get away with this is because the Social Security number has yet to be filed with any credit agencies," says Mason. Fraudsters are able to use children's Social Security numbers to establish their own credit, apply for loans and even get work.
Protecting your child's Social Security number is the best line of defense. Avoid giving it out as much as possible, Mason says. Instead of providing your child's Social Security number in the doctor's office, give a medical insurance ID number. Periodically try to pull your child's credit report. If you haven't added your child as an authorized user to a credit card, your child shouldn't have a credit report. If your child does, that means someone has opened a credit account under your child's name.
Executives are a rich target
Your status and net worth can impact the likelihood of your identity being stolen. Van Dyke says executives and wealthy people are bigger ID theft targets because of their fame and fortune. The FBI says Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen had his identity stolen earlier this year by an AWOL soldier who's accused of illegally obtaining a credit card in Allen's name.
High-income, high-profile people are more at risk simply because they tend to have more credit and more accounts, putting sensitive information in lots of different places. "Criminals try to gain all the information looking at public filings, going through their mailboxes, you name it," Van Dyke says.
"They (the criminals) are really getting creative in trying to get executives' personal information," says Davis. "Once you've got the name, birth date and Social Security number, you've got the keys to the kingdom."
The best identity theft defense for people with money and power is to use monitoring services that will stay on top of bank accounts, credit cards and credit reports and flag any suspicious activity.