Get Smart About Identity Theft | Information Technology | University of Pittsburgh

You are here

Get Smart About Identity Theft

Movies romanticize disguise. Your favorite heroes slip into crowds undetected, use fake IDs and fingerprints to sneak into secret lairs, and get custom passports under unique aliases. I grew up with iconic 2000s children’s spy cinema like Spy Kids and Agent Cody Banks. These movies made me skeptical of strangers in public, and also made me really want a microwave that could make burgers out of space food.

Even though we are fascinated by façades, reality can be scary. Identity theft occurs when a person steals your personal information in order to impersonate you for financial gain. This can include filing fraudulent tax returns to steal your refund, using your credit card information to make online purchases, making false insurance claims, and much, much more.

What's the Sitch, Wade?

Identity theft is a big deal—consistently ranking as a top reason for consumer complaints. Even worse, identity theft is on the rise. Javelin Strategy & Research, a digital finance research and advisory firm, reported that in 2017, there were 16.7 million victims of identity fraud, resulting in an estimated $16.8 billion of stolen money. Yikes. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the most common type of identity theft is thieves using your information to open new credit cards to make purchases in your name.

Uncovering Double Agents and Impersonators

So how do you know when someone’s swiped your cover? Realizing that you’ve been scammed can be tricky, especially because bad guys sometimes wait years to use your information. In other cases, people don’t think to check for fraud. Some thieves target children, because kids don't have or check their credit, making it easy for a fraudster to impersonate a child for years without being found out. In many cases, people don’t discover that identity theft has occurred until the bill collector comes calling or they are turned down for a loan.

Tips for Staying Incognito

Monitoring your online accounts is the best way to keep a look-out for impersonators, but there are also ways to spot the operation before it gets under way:

  • Regularly check your banking and credit card apps or paper statements to look for irregular charges—no matter how small they seem.
  • When making in-store purchases, use your free hand to cover the keypad so that others can’t spy your PIN over your shoulder.
  • Even though it’s fun to share your adventures on social media, sharing personal info like your birthday, phone number, location, and email with the public isn’t a good idea.
  • Pay attention to your inbox. Sites will often notify you by email when your password has been changed. If you didn’t make the change, raise the red flag.
  • Proactively place a freeze on your credit, which prevents new cards or lines of credit from being opened (if the company does a credit check). When you need to buy a car or get a new credit card, just lift the freeze; then, reinstate it when you’re done.

What to Do When Your Cover Is Blown

If you discover that some rando is buying copious amounts of cat food under your name, don’t panic.

  • Contact the companies and banks where the fraud occurred to let them know what’s up. They’ll inform you of their procedures for dealing with identity theft.
  • Contact the three credit reporting agencies (TransUnion, Equifax, Experian) and place a fraud alert/freeze on your account. Get a copy of your credit report from each agency to check for other fraudulent activity.
  • The FTC has a reporting system at for when someone steals your identity—report it, even if you just have a suspicion that something’s up. They also provide an action plan to recover your identity.

In a world where you're more likely to encounter someone stealing your identity than breaking into your home, it’s essential to take preemptive steps to protect your identity. 

-- By Tabitha Barnes, Pitt Student IT Blogger

You tell me: Has an identity thief ever swiped your alias? How did you catch them?