Another Epidemic to Worry About: Identity Theft

Fraud losses grew in 2019 and are likely to increase in 2020.

(Image credit: Westend61 / Andrew Brookes (Westend61 / Andrew Brookes (Photographer) - [None])

Identity thieves are increasingly using stolen information to hijack their victims’ accounts, a costly type of fraud that’s expected to increase as the COVID-19 pandemic forces more Americans to work and shop online.

The number of victims of account takeovers, in which a criminal takes control of an existing online account, rose more than 20% last year, according to a report by Javelin Strategy & Research, a financial advisory firm. While the number of victims of ID theft declined in 2019, total losses rose because account-takeover fraud is more profitable for perpetrators. Javelin also predicts an increase in phishing attacks and “card not present” fraud, in which stolen credit card data is used to make purchases online, by phone or through the mail.

A target-rich environment. Fears of the pandemic and confusion about stimulus checks sent to millions of Americans have created new opportunities for scammers. Fraudsters are bombarding Americans with e-mails and phone calls that use the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 to persuade them to divulge personal information and download malware. The Federal Trade Commission says it received four times as many complaints about identity fraud in the first few weeks of April than it had received in the previous three months combined.

Subscribe to Kiplinger’s Personal Finance

Be a smarter, better informed investor.

Save up to 74%

Sign up for Kiplinger’s Free E-Newsletters

Profit and prosper with the best of expert advice on investing, taxes, retirement, personal finance and more - straight to your e-mail.

Profit and prosper with the best of expert advice - straight to your e-mail.

Sign up

There are steps you can take to protect yourself from account takeovers and other scams. Biometrics, which use fingerprints and facial recognition, are a more effective way to protect smartphones and other devices than passwords. Using digital wallets, such as Apple Pay or Google Pay, to make online purchases is also a good idea, because the merchant doesn’t get your credit card information, Javelin says. Even if the merchant is hit by a data breach, your credit card information should be secure.

You should periodically check your bank statements online to detect signs of fraud. The sooner you catch ID thieves, the less damage they can do. If you think you’ve been a victim of identity fraud, put a freeze on your credit reports with the three credit bureaus. That won’t prevent someone from taking over an existing account, but it will stop crooks from opening new accounts in your name.

Kiplinger's Personal Finance
(Image credit: Getty Images)
Emma Patch
Staff Writer, Kiplinger's Personal Finance

Emma Patch joined Kiplinger in 2020. She previously interned for Kiplinger's Retirement Report and before that, for a boutique investment firm in New York City. She served as editor-at-large and features editor for Middlebury College's student newspaper, The Campus. She specializes in travel, student debt and a number of other personal finance topics. Born in London, Emma grew up in Connecticut and now lives in Washington, D.C.