What Does it Mean to Have Your Identity Stolen?

Learn how identity theft works and how to help keep your identity safe


You may have seen news headlines or come across reports that mention identity theft. While the term may, in its simplest form, be defined as “stealing your identity,” this type of crime is actually multilayered and continuously evolving. Identity theft involves taking your personal information and using it in various ways. 

While you can’t control whether or when your identity might be stolen, there are some benefits in understanding how identity theft works and why someone may want to steal your identity. You might learn how to better protect yourself and your information, along with what steps to take right away to help resolve issues if your identity is stolen. Here’s what you need to know about identity theft and how you can protect your identity.   

What Is Identity Theft?

In the realm of identity theft, your identity has a special meaning. It refers to any information that personally identifies you. This might include your name, Social Security number, credit card or bank account information. It could also involve your driver’s license, address, date of birth, and other documents or data that identify you.

Identity theft, then, occurs when someone takes your personal information without your permission. They use your personal information to carry out criminal activities.  

Why Would Someone Steal Your Identity?

While the exact reasons for identity theft may vary, scammers are often financially driven. They typically use personal information for their own monetary gain. For instance, they may: 

  • Open a new credit card in your name
  • Start new utility accounts with your information
  • Sell the personal information to others for a fee
  • Access your bank accounts to take money out of them
  • File a tax return in your name or steal your tax refund 
  • Receive medical treatment by using your health insurance
  • Make personal purchases such as new phones or other merchandise

The result could be a financial loss in the short-term for you—though you may be able to sort this out with organizations and authorities to recover the losses. In addition, your credit report could be affected until you’re able to carry out the appropriate steps to repair the damage. Generally, identity theft also causes stress for those it impacts, and it can require a large amount of time to sort out the repercussions.  

How Could Your Identity Get Stolen?

As previously noted, your personal information might appear in different places, like on a credit card, your driver’s license, your email, and within online accounts. Given this, scammers might look in spots where they can find or access personal data. Here are some common ways that identity theft occurs: 

  • Phishing scams: In these cases, a scammer will reach out with a message, such as an email, text or phone call. It may appear to be from a legitimate place, but the scammer will ask you to provide personal information. You might be directed to a fake website where you fill in information or be asked to share personal information over the phone. 
  • Stolen wallet or phone: A scammer might grab your belongings from your car, shopping cart or other place. The scammer will then look for personal information. Your wallet might be searched for items like your driver’s license and credit or bank cards. If your phone can be unlocked, the scammer might search through your text messages, apps, email and other places for personal information.
  • Listening over Wi-Fi: If you connect to Wi-Fi in an area that has a public network, such as a restaurant or store, a scammer might tune in to your connection. If you enter personal information like a password, account number or Social Security number, the scammer might be able to use the data.
  • Dumpster diving: Your personal information may appear in account statements, paperwork or letters that end up in the trash. Scammers will sort through garbage cans to look for personal information they can use.  
  • Malware: Scammers may use harmful software such as a virus, a worm, or spyware that infects your computer or mobile device. With the malware, scammers extract your personal information from the device. Malware can be delivered by going to a malicious website or downloading a malicious attachment from an email.
  • Skimmers: With this method, a scammer might place a skimming device over the card slot of a point-of-sale terminal such as a gas pump or an ATM. When you insert your card, the skimmer reads the personal information from your card. 
  • Data breaches: A scammer might gain access to the data stored by an organization. The scammer will then search for personal information like first and last names, along with credit card numbers or other identifying details. 

What Should You Do When Your Identity Is Stolen?

If you think you’ve been a victim of identity theft, there are several steps you can take. The faster you act, the sooner you may be able to resolve any issues related to the theft. Here are some swift moves you can make:

  • Contact your creditors: You can call your credit card companies and financial institutions to let them know you think you’ve been a victim. You can also get in touch through our Support Center to get help right away. You might also report the incident to local officials and the federal government.  
  • Contact credit reporting agencies: You can also ask the three main credit bureaus—Equifax, Experian and TransUnion—for help. They can assist you in placing an alert on your file or freezing your credit report.  
  • Focus on safety: For your online accounts, you can change passwords and make sure the new ones are strong. Make a note of when the theft occurred, what was stolen, and what action you took. Keep a record of the conversations you have with authorities and agencies, along with any mail or documents you might receive.

How Can You Help Protect Your Identity?

Being aware of identity theft is a first step toward identifying a potential scheme. While it is sometimes impossible to prevent identity theft, there are actions you can take to help keep your personal information safe. Here are a few ideas:

  • Keep personal information close: Avoid leaving your purse or phone in the car when you head into a store or restaurant. Also steer clear of entering personal information such as passwords and account numbers when using public Wi-Fi. Additionally, be sure to shred any documents containing personal information before throwing them away.
  • Hang up or hit delete: If you receive texts or emails that look suspicious, you can report them to the appropriate company or authority. Don’t click on links within messages or reply directly.
  • Check your devices for spyware: Running antivirus software programs on your computer or phone can detect any malicious software that may be monitoring your activity without your authorization.
  • Check your credit report: At least once a year, make sure the information in your credit report is accurate. You can do this by reviewing the accounts and activity to ensure you’ve authored each. You can check your credit score for free anytime with CreditWise® from Capital One. You can also go to Annualcreditreport.com and get a free copy of your credit report every 12 months from Experian, TransUnion and Equifax.

This is just a start—learn more simple, smart ways to prevent identity theft.

While identity theft can seem complex, understanding how it works may enable you to spot it before becoming a victim. If identity theft does occur, there are resources to help get everything straightened out as soon as possible. Staying informed can ultimately be one of the best ways to keep your personal information safe and sound.   


The information contained herein is shared for educational purposes only, and it does not provide a comprehensive list of all financial operations considerations or best practices.

Capital One does not provide, endorse or guarantee any third-party product, service, information, or recommendation listed above. The third parties listed are solely responsible for their products and services, and all trademarks listed are the property of their respective owners.

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