AARP Eye Center
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 widespread: The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) fielded more than 1.4 million complaints about identity theft in 2021, accounting for 1 in 4 fraud reports to the consumer-protection agency.
And it comes in many forms: Credit-reporting agency Experian lists 16 distinct types. (Some, such as tax ID theft and Social Security number scams, are discussed in greater detail elsewhere in the Fraud Resource Center.)
Identity thieves swarm the internet and often target older Americans, who tend to be slow to adopt new fraud-prevention technologies and are loath to change their online habits even when they've experienced fraud, according to an October 2020 study produced by digital finance consulting firm Javelin Strategy and Research and sponsored by AARP.
These scammers have a range of tactics to get what they need, from old school (stealing your mail) to high tech (massive 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 send phishing emails with links that 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. This tactic exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic as criminals exploited the distribution of trillions of dollars in federal relief funds. Consumers reported more than 800,000 cases of identity theft tied to government benefits or documents to the FTC in 2020 and 2021, compared to fewer than 75,000 in the previous three years combined.