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Identity Theft

Identity theft occurs when someone obtains someone else’s personal information, such as a Social Security number, home address, date of birth or bank account data, and uses it for fraud or other illicit purposes.

​​It’s a massive problem: Identity fraud cost 40 million Americans a combined $43 billion, according to a new AARP-sponsored report from Javelin Strategy & Research. Last year’s losses were $9 billion less than 2021’s — a drop that the report attributes to “the relentless efforts of the financial services industry to keep criminals at bay.”​​​

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Criminals constantly adjust their tactics, so consumers need to be stay informed and alert to identity fraud’s many forms: Credit reporting agency Equifax lists eight types. (Some, such as tax ID theft, are discussed in greater detail in AARP’s Fraud Resource Center.​​​​

Scammers’ methods range from old-school (stealing your mail) to high-tech (hacks of banks, retail chains and other companies that stockpile consumer data). They might pretend to be from utilities, banks or big tech firms to get their hands on identifying information, or they send phishing emails with links that can infect your device with data-harvesting malware.​​

Most often, they claim to represent government agencies, soliciting personal or financial data on the pretext of helping you collect benefits or navigate bureaucracy. That includes a recent surge in criminals pretending to be someone in your social network claiming they just received a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), then guiding you toward fake websites or phone numbers where you’ll be asked for personal information.

Once they have your private data, scammers may use it to open credit accounts and make big-ticket purchases you might not discover until the bills come due. They might get medical treatment, file tax returns or take out loans in your name. The costs are counted not just in money but in time spent chasing down phony accounts, repairing damaged credit and reestablishing your identity with government and financial institutions.​

As many ways as there are for fraudsters to poach your identity, there are also many simple steps you can take to help keep them at bay.​​

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Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.

Warning signs

  • Bank and credit card statements list withdrawals or purchases you don’t remember making.
  • You get a bill or invoice for financial activity you don’t recognize or medical services you didn’t receive.​
  • Your credit report lists accounts or liabilities you don’t recognize.
  • You are contacted by a debt collector about a debt you don’t owe.
  • You have trouble filing your taxes because the Internal Revenue Service says it already has a return from you.
  • You receive notice from a bank or company you do business with that it has suffered a data breach.​

How to protect yourself

  • ​​Use security software on your devices, and keep it updated.​
  • Set up online access to your bank and credit card accounts. Check them regularly and contact the bank or card provider immediately if you spot any suspicious activity.​
  • Switch to paperless billing and financial statements, so you get less sensitive information in the mail.
  • Check your credit reports. Experian, Equifax and TransUnion are the nation’s three main credit reporting companies, but you can access all of your credit reports through one website, The federal Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB) recommends checking them at least once every 12 months to make sure they’re accurate and complete. ​
  • Consider putting a fraud alert or freeze on your credit report. A freeze prevents anyone from opening a credit account in your name; an alert requires prospective lenders or creditors to verify your identity.​
  • File your tax return as early as possible. Tax ID thieves who’ve obtained your personal information will try to beat you to it.​
  • Shred bank statements, tax forms, medical bills and other documents containing personal or financial data before you throw them out.​
  • Use a PIN or other type of passcode for unlocking laptops, tablets and smartphones. If a device is lost or stolen, a code will make it harder for thieves to get at what’s on it.​
  • Create strong and varied passwords, and use two-factor authentication if available — it prevents people from accessing your accounts with just the password.​
  • Leave your Social Security card at home in a secure place, and carry documents with your Social Security number on them only when necessary.​
  • Never give out your Social Security number or other personal information over the phone unless you are certain who’s asking for it and why.​
  • Avoid checking email, using social media or doing online shopping or banking on public Wi-Fi networks. Many are poorly secured, leaving openings for hackers to intercept sensitive data.​
  • Don’t leave personal information in your car, even if it’s locked.​
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More resources

​If your identity has been stolen or misused, report it to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) at or by calling 877-438-4338. ​Identity theft by online means can also be reported to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.


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