Everything You Need to Know to Protect Your Identity During the Coronavirus Pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has caused financial chaos for millions of people throughout the country. With entire industries shut down and small businesses forced to close, many people are losing jobs and income, leading to an unprecedented number of unemployment claims.

On top of everything else, scammers are taking advantage of the chaos by running elaborate identity theft schemes. Google reported blocking over 18 million malware and phishing emails daily related to COVID-19 and 18,235 reports relating to the virus have been filed with the FTC since January 1.

Identity protection is especially important now.

What is identity theft?
These strategies can help you protect your identity
What to do if your identity is compromised

What is identity theft?

Identity theft is when someone steals your personal information or Social Security number and uses it for financial gain. It can come in the form of new accounts opened in your name, purchases made with your existing credit cards, or the interception of government money like your tax refund or stimulus check. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), there were over 650,000 identity thefts in 2019, making up 20% of all reports fielded by the agency.

The most common forms of identity theft Number of Cases (2019)
Credit card fraud 271,880
Other identity theft (consumer’s identity used to access email or social media, get medical services, get insurance, etc.) 215,767
Loan or lease fraud 104,733

Source: Federal Trade Commission

Of course, if someone steals your wallet, you’re immediately aware the thief may start ringing up fraudulent charges on your account. But here are a few of the many other ways they may attempt to get your information:

  • Phishing scams: Someone contacts you by phone, email or text pretending to be a trusted source — be it a government agency or your boss — in order to trick you into divulging personal details that can be used to gain access to your accounts.
  • Data breach: Hackers break into an organization’s network in order to steal any stored information, like Social Security numbers or email passwords.
  • Mail or garbage theft: A scammer steals unopened mail from your mailbox or roots through your trash for identifying information.

These strategies can help you protect your identity

Unfortunately, online scams and identity theft can happen to anyone at any time, even if you are careful. But you can reduce your chances of exposing your private information to hackers by taking easy precautions. Use these tips to help protect your identity.

Use a credit monitoring service Take your credit protection to the next level by using tools like the My LendingTree app, which allows you to easily track your financial activity. The app also includes a free credit monitoring feature that notifies you of changes to your credit report within a day — giving you time to freeze your credit and report the fraud before it gets worse. Additionally, LendingTree is now offering identity protection plans starting at $9.95. Through the paid plans, consumers can monitor their phone numbers, social media accounts, credit cards and more.

LendingTree’s chief industry analyst Matt Schulz said, “Credit monitoring can help bring peace of mind to consumers who are frustrated by identity theft. However, even with a credit monitoring service, it’s still important to build identity theft checks into your regular financial routine.”

Think before you share It may seem obvious, but be very careful about where you post, share or submit your personal information. You wouldn’t tweet out your credit card number, so be just as careful when it comes making purchases or donations online.

Verify that sites are safe and protected. Check the URL to ensure it begins with “https.” URLs beginning with “http” do not have secure connections. Search for reviews or trusted verification from organizations like the Better Business Bureau. If you’re making purchases from independent sellers, use services like PayPal to protect your information and secure your payment.

Secure your accounts In addition to guarding your actual bank and payment information, make sure you use secure passwords on any of your online accounts and don’t post things that would help hackers crack your passwords. Sure it’s fun to have your birthday public online so your friends remember — but if your birthday is your bank PIN, hackers are one step closer to getting your money. Use complicated passwords or enable two-factor authentication using apps like Google Authenticator for your private accounts.

Watch for scams Phishing scams are getting more and more creative, which makes them harder to detect. Hackers might try to get your attention in an email or text scam by mentioning the coronavirus or other personal details, like names of coworkers or local events.

Schulz added, “It’s important to know that financial institutions, government agencies and other reputable organizations are typically not going to call you or email you asking for sensitive information like a password or Social Security number. If that happens, end the call or delete the email and then contact the company yourself.”

Shop safer If you choose to practice social distancing by shopping online, you’re better off using a credit card than a debit card. If your credit card information is stolen but you’re still in possession of the actual card, you won’t be responsible for any charges under the Fair Credit Billing Act. If you do lose your physical card, you could be liable for up to $50 of the charges.

However, if your debit card is compromised, you have a limited amount of time to report it before you become liable for charges. If the physical card is stolen, the Electronic Fund Transfer Act protects you from liability if you report the card stolen before any fraudulent purchases are attempted. But if you don’t know a hacker has your card information — if they hacked your computer or a store website — you could be on the hook for purchases they make. If your card number is stolen but you retain your physical card, you won’t be responsible for any charges so long as you report it within 60 days.

Check your credit card statements and credit report Take a close look at each of your credit card statements and ensure you recognize all charges. If you notice a potentially fraudulent charge, notify your servicer immediately. Typically, everyone is able to get one free credit report per year from all three of the major credit bureaus. However, during the coronavirus pandemic all the bureaus have announced free weekly credit reports. Visit AnnualCreditReport.com to view yours.

What you should do if your identity is compromised

If you believe you are the victim of identity theft, the FTC recommends taking these four steps immediately:

  1. Call the merchants where the fraud occurred.
    • If you find suspicious charges on one or more of your accounts, contact the company’s fraud department and alert them of the unauthorized charge. You should also cancel your card immediately so no further charges can be made.
  2. Contact a credit bureau to place a fraud alert on your credit and make sure you have access to your credit report.
    • You can contact any of the three major credit bureaus — Experian, TransUnion or Equifax — to request a complimentary one-year fraud alert on your credit report. Whichever bureau you report to must inform the others.
  3. File an identity theft report with the FTC.
    • You can follow the steps online or call the FTC at 1-877-438-4338 with as many details you can about the fraud. If you create an account, you can access a recovery plan with auto-fill forms and letters for you at each step.
  4. File a police report with local authorities.
    • You also have the option of filing a police report. Bring a copy of your FTC Identity Theft Report as well as any bills or statements that can serve as evidence.