Online Dangers

Online Identity Theft – How To Protect Yourself

Manuela Lenz
Last update
19. Apr 2021

You're at the airport waiting for check-in to begin, and decide to pass the time by browsing Amazon. A few days later, you receive a bill from the online merchant for several thousand dollars. But you didn't order anything, and there's neither hide nor hair of the goods on the invoice. What might sound like a scene from a movie is distressingly real for thousands of people every day.

Cybercriminals gain access to their victims' information and assume their digital identity – with devastating consequences. In addition to the financial damage that is wrought, the misuse of someone's identity can also have legal ramifications for the individual affected. In this article, you'll learn what precautions you can take to protect yourself and what to do if you've already been victimized.

What Is Identity Theft?

"Identity Theft" refers to a variety of scenarios in which one individual pretends to be someone they're not. Generally speaking, there are two different kinds of identity theft:

  • The perpetrator engages in activities using their victim's name
  • The perpetrator subverts their victim's account(s) in order to access and misuse their personal data

The following table lists the most common types of identity theft:

Fake ProfileAccount TakeoverNew Online Accounts

The perpetrator impersonates their victim on social media or other online platforms, sends messages in the victim's name, makes contacts with their friends and acquaintances, or spreads false information and rumors.

The perpetrator doesn't even go to the trouble of creating a new account, instead, taking over their victim's account outright. In this manner, they gain access to other personal information and slowly assume the rest of the victim's identity.

The perpetrator uses the victim's personal information to create new accounts at online stores or ecommerce platforms. Typically, they will then place orders, subscribe to a phone plan, or even open up a bank or credit card account in their victim's name.

Tip: A good way to find out if someone is using your data online is to set up a Google Alert for your name. You'll automatically receive an email every time a search hit on your name is registered (albeit only on public websites). It isn't necessary to sign up with Google to create such an alert.

What Preventive Measures Can I Take Against Identity Theft?

It's always better to be safe than sorry, but in the case of identity fraud, prevention is easier said than done. The most extreme preventive measure you can take is complete "Internet abstinence", however, that's a very difficult thing to do in our day and age. Plus, identity theft isn't an "online problem" – it's been committed "offline" for centuries.


Protect Your Accounts and Passwords

Regularly change your passwords and use a unique password for each account you have. A secure password contains upper- and lowercase letters, at least one digit, and a special character.

When signing up for online shops or social media platforms, try using different email addresses and passwords. This prevents criminals from gaining direct access to your personal information, should they manage to break into one of your accounts. Use the Password Check to see if your password has been affected by a data leak in the past.

Always log out completely from your accounts when finished using a computer, especially if you've been surfing on a public one, i.e. in a library or an internet café.


Encrypt Your Data Communication

Always use a secure SSL connection or a VPN connection when active on a public network, such as those at a hotel or airport.

Encrypt your email correspondence and hard drive with special software (i.e. BitLocker). This way, your information is secure in the event of theft.


Stay Up to Date

Make sure that you're using the latest version of whatever antivirus software is installed on any devices you surf the Internet with. Regularly scan for malware.

Regularly update your operating system and your computer's software to close any security exploits before hackers can make use of them.


Be Skeptical

Never blindly accept friend requests from people you don't know on social media.

Be suspicious of emails that ask for personal information such as your username or password. Cybercriminals use a tactic known as phishing to query people for account information and passwords.

Regularly check your bank account and credit card statements for suspicious activity. Pay attention to any unknown transactions, even if the amounts are small, and alert your service providers.

Always use a nickname or a pseudonym when surfing the Web. Only use your real name if it's absolutely necessary.

What Should I Do If I've Already Become a Victim of Identity Theft?

In most cases, people only notice that they've fallen victim to identity theft after the damage has been done. Even then, it's important to keep a cool head and take the right measures.

Below is a checklist for victims of identity theft:

  1. 1.
    Immediately contact the police and Federal Trade Commission and file any necessary reports. This is especially helpful in case a crime has been committed in your name. Ignore any warnings and refuse demands for payment in order to protect your credit score. If a purchase is disputed, it is the vendor's responsibility to prove that a contract has been concluded correctly. Get in touch with your local consumer advocacy group or better business bureau if you have any questions.
  2. 2.
    Inform your social circle (family, friends, acquaintances, and business partners) that someone has stolen your identity. This prevents them from falling for the same scam or from being victimized in your name.
  3. 3.
    Immediately report fake accounts (i.e. on social media) to the website's operator and request the deletion of any information and content related to that account.
  4. 4.
    Check your bank and credit card statements in case you need to cancel any unauthorized transfers. If possible, contact the recipient of the payment.
  5. 5.
    Contact your credit card company and freeze or cancel your credit card while reporting that it has been used to engage in fraudulent activities. Many provide information and support to victims of identity theft, so it is advisable to register as such and prevent damage to your credit score.

In particularly extreme cases of identity theft or if you're unsure about your legal situation, it is advisable to consult a lawyer specializing in identity theft or fraud.

Author: Manuela Lenz
Manuela Lenz is a trained IT specialist and worked for 20 years as a system administrator and project manager for large companies. Since 2017, the IT specialist has been a passionate IT-author. For she writes about project management, software and IT security.
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