Identity theft: Could it happen to you?

"Banks and credit card companies are being a lot more diligent about letting you know if something odd comes up," Cindy Thompson, of ISU Outreach and Extension, told a captive audience at Guttenberg Public Library. (Press photo by Molly Moser)

By Molly Moser

An epidemic of security breaches in recent weeks have left up to 110 million Target customers, shoppers at Nieman Marcus, and three other U.S. retailers’ consumers at risk for identity theft.  

“Chaos,” and “nightmare,” are two words participants used to describe identity theft last week at Guttenberg Public Library. Cindy Thompson, Family Life/Family Finance Program Specialist for ISU Extension and Outreach, gave a presentation on the topic to a room filled with concerned citizens.  

“I had a credit card hacked within the last month,” admitted one local woman, who asked to remain anonymous. A credit card she uses to purchase e-books came up with a balance nearly 40 times her normal monthly usage. Her credit card company noticed the discrepancy and called to question her. “I felt fortunate that they called me, but it’s scary,” she said. “How do hackers get that information?” She and her husband will probably never know the answer to that question. 

In addition to the stress of resolving identity theft, says Thompson, “There is an emotional side to identity theft that goes unspoken. People think, ‘What did I do wrong?’ They become untrusting.”

Thompson explained that although identity theft often occurs  financially, thieves also have other motivations. Identities can be stolen for medical purposes, like submitting health insurance claims, or to hide criminal activity under a stolen identity. She described the common ways identities are stolen, gave tips on how to protect your identity, and reassured her audience with steps to take if they become victims.

Though electronic methods of identity theft have been appearing more and more often in the news, the majority of identities are stolen through low-tech methods, like unauthorized use by family and friends, telephone scams, ‘shoulder surfing,’ (someone peering over your shoulder while you use a card at an ATM or store check-out), and through the mail.

“The number one way to reduce your risk of identity theft is to avoid giving out your social security number,” Thompson told her audience. Social security numbers are required on income taxes, medical records, credit bureau reports, college records, loan applications, and vehicle registrations – but that’s it. No one else has the authority to require your social security number.

Thompson also advised keeping passports and social security cards locked up, limiting the amount of identification carried with you on a daily basis. If possible, bills should be mailed at the post office, not through an unlocked personal mailbox, to protect personal information. Credit cards should not be allowed out of sight. “If using your card at a restaurant, where they are often taken away to be charged, keep your receipt and follow up on your statement,” Thompson recommended. 

To prevent electronic threats to your identity, Thompson suggested passwords of at least 10 characters, including one number and one special symbol. “Never click on pop-up ads, and use a credit card instead of a debit card when shopping online,” she advised. 

Keeping a lock on your cell phone is another way to protect your information. “Over 50% of young adults bank online using their cell phones,” Thompson said. Stored banking and shopping information make phones a target for hackers. 

While it seems to be a common problem, just 7% of Americans over 16 had their identities stolen in 2012. “The security breach at Target affected millions of people, but the percentage of those whose identities have actually been stolen is probably small,” said Thompson. 

About half of identity theft victims suffer losses of less than $100, and half resolve any related issues in less than a day. For 29% of victims, resolution can take over a month. 

“If this happens to you, know that it will take a while. Be persistent,” Thompson counseled. The Federal Trade Commission provides a free, step-by-step action plan for victims of identity theft, available at 

Warning signs that your identity my have been stolen include unsolicited offers from strangers, requests to send money or bank account information, denied credit, or credit report discrepancies.

“Each of us are eligible for one free credit report per year from each of three organizations,” Thompson explained. She recommends using all three to keep tabs on your credit, and your identity, throughout the year. To receive a free credit report from Equifax, Experian, or Transunion, visit or call 1-877-322-8228.

For more information about identity theft, call ISU Extension’s Iowa Concern number, 800-447-1985, or visit

Rate this article: 
No votes yet
Comment Here