Identity Theft 101

Paula LaBrot

Remember that movie, Catch Me If You Can, about Frank Abagnale, who, as a kid, ran the FBI ragged, forging checks and stealing identities? (He assumed at least eight identities during this run.)

I ran across an interesting quote from him recently: “The police can’t protect consumers. People need to be more aware and educated about identity theft. You need to be a little bit wiser, a little bit smarter…. We live in a time when, if you make it easy for someone to steal from you, someone will.” Connectedness has its perils!  


According to a 2018 online survey by the Harris Poll, nearly 60 million Americans have been affected by identity theft. In 2017, 16.7 million individuals were victims of identity theft and the amount of money stolen in that year was around $16.8 billion.

Lifelock suggests the most common cause of identity theft is not really the stolen wallet scenarios. It is data breaches. Data breaches occur when an “organization’s customer’s records, which may include full names, Social Security numbers, and other personal information, are accessed fraudulently.” Home Depot, JP Morgan, Anthem, TJ Max, Target, Yahoo, UCLA, Adobe, Ebay, Jet Blue, and many more organizations have lost millions of customers’ sensitive account information to cyber criminals.


There are three levels of information lost to hackers, according to Least sensitive data is names and addresses; More sensitive data includes e-mail addresses, dates of birth, and account numbers from credit and debit cards; Most sensitive losses include social security numbers, online-account passwords, financial-account numbers, and payment-card three-digit security codes. Tom suggests that with your social security number and your name, “almost anyone can pose as you.”

I would like to add that your medical information is very vulnerable. Each time you fill out the intake form in a doctor’s office, there is a chance your information can be harvested by someone working in the office. You do not, by law, have to fill in your social security number, your driver’s license or anything you don’t want to, beyond your insurance information.  


The sad truth is that you can’t totally protect yourself. Even if you do everything right, anyone you do business with can make a mistake or purposely steal your information. However, you can mitigate the chance of being compromised and the damage done. Online, use caution both how and where you share your personal information. Give your home wi-fi network a name not tied to your address. Use strong, long passwords. I make up sentences with a number or symbol in it. Use different passwords for different accounts. Keep a typed list handy at home as opposed to a password manager, which could, itself, be hacked. Be super careful on public wi-fi networks…. I always change my password after using one. They are easy to hack into. Get a VPN…a virtual private network, which will encrypt your data.  

Offline, make your mailbox secure. Loan offers, w-2 forms, and bank statements are gold to a cyber thief. Criminals love to open new accounts in your name. Shred your financial garbage to protect yourself from dumpster divers. Keep personal information papers private when people come into your house.


In the event your identity is stolen, do these things immediately.

  • File a police report with your local police department…absolutely necessary if you need to apply for a new social security card.
  • File an “Identity Theft” complaint with the Federal Trade Commission:
  • Place a SECURITY ALERT on the credit bureaus. This will prevent fraudsters from attempting to apply for loans, service accounts, and/or credit cards without contacting the true owner of the SSN first. Here are the phone numbers which you can call directly to place the alerts: 

                                Equifax (800) 525-6285

                                Experian (888) 397-3742

                                TransUnion (800) 680-7289

  • 4) In addition to the Security Alerts, check your credit report and determine which accounts/inquiries are unauthorized. You may have to do a credit bureau dispute. For more information on credit bureau disputes:
  • You may place a credit freeze on your accounts, so no one can open new accounts, the favorite trick of cyber thieves.
  • Report the theft of a Social Security number to the IRS at You can also call 1-800-908-4490. That will prevent tax fraud thieves from filing tax returns in your name—and collecting your tax refund.
  • Check medical EOB’s (explanations of benefits) to make sure no one is using your medical insurance, because once they use up your benefits, you can’t get them.
  • Report lost Medicare cards.
  • Report lost credit cards and debit cards immediately. Debit cards, especially, have to be reported within 50 hours to mitigate liability.

So, my beloved Topangans, I hope you are now a little bit wiser and smarter.

Vamos a ver!

Paula LaBrot
Paula LaBrot

Paula LaBrot is a 30-year resident of Topanga, a futurist with a special interest in the uncharted waters of cyberspace.

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