UW Privacy Office

Learn About Identity Theft

Last updated on December 16, 2022


What is Identity Theft?

In general, identity (ID) theft happens when someone steals your personal information to commit fraud or impersonate you. Common types of identity theft involve individuals filing for taxes, unemployment, or benefits in your name, using your medical insurance information to obtain medical services, or purchasing items using your credit or debit card.

Identity theft may harm individuals in the following ways:

  • Damage to reputation
  • Damage credit score
  • Loss of money and/or financial assets
  • Limit ability to make financial decisions while a fraud is being investigated
  • Loss of time and energy investigating, resolving, and recovering from identity theft

Types of Identity Theft

Financial Identity Theft

Fraudulent credit card purchase, loan application, filing for taxes/refunds, unemployment, or bankruptcy, etc.

Examples of Potential Harm: May hurt victim’s credit score and/or ability to get loans in the future.

May be evidenced by: Fraudulent credit card purchases, unrecognizable new entries on a credit report, unexpected merchandise delivered to you at your address, debt collection calls, etc.

Medical Identity Theft

Use of another individual’s personal data to obtain medical services, drugs, or insurance coverage.

Examples of Potential Harm: Financial expenses incurred in the victim’s name, inaccuracy, or corruption of an individual’s medical record by intermixing a thief’s records with the victim’s records. May also prevent victims from getting future insurance coverage or medical care.

May be evidenced by: Unrecognizable insurance claims/charges, errors in medical history.

Criminal Identity Theft

Use of another individual’s identity (impersonates the “victim”) when arrested or questioned by law enforcement.

Examples of Potential Harm: Criminal records or charges may be filed against the criminal identity theft victim rather than the actual perpetrator.

May be evidenced by: Unexpected court summons, suspension of driver’s license, issues when undergoing an employment background check.

Child Identity Theft

Theft or misuse of personal information associated with a minor (youth under the age of 18).

Examples of Potential Harm: Illegal use of name and social security number to open lines of credit, obtain an identification card or Driver’s License, obtain a loan, open a financial account, etc., which may damage the minor’s credit history.

May be evidenced by: Unrecognized entries on a minor’s credit report. May go undetected for many years, often discovered when the child reaches adulthood.

Social Identity Theft

Use of an individual’s name and photos to create a fake account on social media.

Examples of Potential Harm: Damaged reputation from statements, photos, or opinions shared falsely in victim’s name, misuse of social media to phish or exploit others known to victim.

May be evidenced by: Existence of social media accounts not established by the individual, notifications from friends/acquaintances of unexpected social media contact in victim’s name.

How Identity Theft Happens

Below are some of the many techniques criminals use to obtain your personal information in order to commit identity theft:

  • Leverage lost or stolen wallet contents
  • Search your trash or recycling bin for documents with personal information
  • Initiate phone scams (victim inadvertently shares passwords or credentials on the phone)
  • Watch as you enter credentials (cash machine, laptop, phone, etc.)
  • Launch email and text scams (messages sent to user that appear to come from a legitimate source, and user enters account information and passwords on imposter website)
  • Install spyware (when user clicks on suspicious link, spyware is installed that enables viewing of account, password or other credential information)
  • Establish imposter websites to collect personal data
  • Install skimming devices at cash registers, ATMs and credit card readers that record credentials
  • Gather personal information from profiles, social media quizzes, surveys, or unprotected shared documents
  • Carry out data breaches (intentional theft of personal information from companies or organizations)
  • Install malware/viruses (when victim clicks on links/attachments, causes download of malware/virus)

Preventive Actions to Protect Your Identity

  • Limit sharing of personal information (birthdate, passwords, financial account numbers, Social Security number, driver license number etc.) in person, on forms, or on social media. Do not share your Social Security number or other unique identifiers unless mandatory.
  • Secure your Social Security number and other unique identifiers such as a passport number or driver license number.
  • Monitor credit reports annually. See the Federal Trade Commission’s – Free Credit Reports website for information on obtaining a free credit report from the nationwide credit reporting companies (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) once every 12 months.
  • Place a credit or security freeze on your credit. This enables you to restrict access to your credit score and report, making it more difficult for new accounts or loans to be established in your name without your explicit permission.

Contact each of the nationwide credit reporting agencies to place a freeze on your credit reports (duration and related costs may vary).

Equifax Experian TransUnion
P.O. Box 740241
Atlanta, GA 30374-0241
Equifax website
P.O. Box 9554
Allen, TX 75013
Experian website
P.O. Box 2000
Chester, PA 19016
Transunion website

When freezing your credit, you will be asked to supply your name, address, date of birth, Social Security number, and other personal information.

  • Monitor billing cycles, and if or when bills or statements are delayed, contact the sender.
  • Review statements for unauthorized transactions.
  • Create complex passwords, use a password manager, secure passwords in a safe place.
  • Establish notifications or limits for credit card activity.
  • Use privacy and security features on all computing devices and smartphones.
  • Avoid use of public wi-fi network where possible, or use a virtual private network (VPN) if you use public wi-fi.
  • Store personal information in a safe place.
  • Shred receipts, credit offers, account statements, and other documents with personal data.
  • Use virus-detection software on work/home computers.
  • Avoid clicking on suspicious links or opening document attachments without verifying sender.
  • Consider identity theft protection services.

Reporting Identity Theft

If you believe you are a victim of identity theft, take the following actions as soon as possible:

  • Contact banks, organizations or companies where you believe identity theft has occurred and inform them of the fraudulent activity.
  • Contact the nationwide credit reporting to agencies listed above to request a current copy of your credit report and then place a fraud alert (the credit bureau you contact must tell the other two, and all three will place an alert on their versions of your report) and/or request a security credit freeze with each agency. You may request a new fraud alert when the previous alert expires. For victims of identity theft, an extended fraud alert will protect your credit for an extended period of time. A fraud alert allows creditors to get a copy of your credit report as long as they take steps to verify your identity. A credit freeze locks down your credit.
  • Report your suspected identity theft to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
  • Report expected fraud to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
  • Report the crime to police department where you live and where the crime occurred, if known. Obtain a copy of the police.
  • Share the police report with the major credit reporting agencies and organizations where you believe identity theft occurred, if requested.
  • Ask the banks, organizations, or companies where the suspected identity theft occurred to provide you with information about transactions made in your name.
  • Continue to monitor your credit reports, financial statements, and billing statements for additional fraudulent activity.

Recovering From and Repairing Identity Theft

  • Work with banks, organization, or companies to close fraudulent accounts established in your name and remove fraudulent charges from your existing accounts
  • Work with credit monitoring agencies to remove fraudulent accounts from credit reports
  • Visit the Federal Trade Commission’s – Recovery Steps to Take – for a more extensive and targeted list of action steps

Helpful Resources