One way in which many consumers may fall victim to identity theft without even realizing that they have done so is extremely common these days: They simply list too much financial and personal information about themselves online.
Millions of people have all sorts of information about themselves stored on their social networking profiles and elsewhere, and their reasons for doing so are often simply that this is the kind of thing most of the sites' users do. However, while most people will see this kind of data and think nothing of it, those with criminal intentions may find these sites to be rich veins of personal data that can then be used to commit identity theft.
What kind of data can criminals use?
Even the most basic information listed on a social networking site – whether it's Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn – can be used for the purposes of identity theft that can strike victims often without their even knowing it's happening. The most basic data a person might make available on their social networking profiles, such as their name, birthday and the city in which they were born, is all a criminal might need to at least begin the process of trying to stealing an identity, and particularly savvy ones can even use that data to figure out the last piece of a puzzle: one's Social Security number. With that information, a criminal can apply for all kinds of fraudulent accounts with relative impunity.
What damage can this do?
The biggest problem that this kind of attempt at identity theft can pose for consumers is that it might allow a criminal to use the data gleaned from their social networking site to open new accounts in their names, often without their even knowing about it. Often, all it usually takes to open a new credit card, loan, or other type of line of credit is a name, date of birth and Social Security number, and the damage that such an account can do to one's credit is typically substantial.
This is particularly true for consumers who don't know they've been ripped off in this manner for a period of months or even years, because it can affect everything from their payment history and credit utilization ratio – that is, the amount of outstanding debt in their names as a percentage of their total available credit limits – to significantly boosting the number of applications made in the recent past, and reducing the average age of all their combined accounts. All of these can have a profound negative impact on a borrower's credit rating. The first two of these considerations make up a total 65 percent of one's score, and thus having even one be slightly out of sorts – and usually it's common for both to be in bad shape because identity thieves tend to rack up large debts in a short period of time and then not pay the bills – can be a significant hindrance to a good credit score.
What can be done?
One of the best ways for consumers to better protect the safety of themselves and their personal and financial data online is to simply think critically about what they're sharing. For example, they might want to ask whether there's really a need to share one's date and place of birth, and other identifying details about their background on the site. If they can't come up with a good answer, then removing it from one's profile is likely a wise course of action.
Moreover, something everyone should do regardless of how much data they share on their social networking profiles is make all information private. One common misconception many might have is that people who aren't friends with them cannot see their data, but this isn't true unless they have their privacy settings turned all the way up. Doing so will make their pages far more difficult to view in general, and better protect the data listed on them unless they approve a friend request from a potential criminal. Of course, because identity theft is often committed by someone the victim knows, this is why deleting as much sensitive data as possible can be a wise course to take.
Finally, consumers should also make sure they haven't been victimized by identity theft in the past by taking the time to closely check over their credit reports with regularity. Doing so may help them to identify any potentially unfair markings which may serve to lower their credit scores without cause. If any such problematic entries are discovered, working with a credit repair law firm may help to correct the issues as expediently as possible and return consumers' credit standings to where they deserve to be.