According to Forbes, the average American spends an astonishing 12 hours a day at home in front of computer and TV screens. We consume 5 times more information in a day than we did 50 years ago.

This seemingly insatiable thirst for information has a few downsides, however, one of which is increased exposure to cybercrime, and identity theft in particular.

Sure, most of us are tech-savvy enough to know we need strong passwords for our sensitive accounts and personal information. We’d never click on a link we don’t know to be safe. We’d certainly never entertain a random caller claiming to be from Microsoft, who says we have an issue he’ll fix for us if we just give him control of our computer.

However, if an unscrupulous “coffee shop hacker” does manage to compromise your computer or phone, what’s the worst can happen? Unfortunately, quite a lot.

Keep your friends close and your SSN closer still

Let’s say your Social Security number (SSN) falls into the wrong hands. Thieves can use this information to commit tax refund fraud by filing a bogus return in your name. After the fraudsters have filed the return, immediately the IRS begins processing returns for the year. This means by the time you get around to it your refund has already been stolen.

You can help avoid this fraud by having all refunds paid into a specific bank account and making sure to take advantage of all the additional security measures the IRS offers, such as an Identity Protection PIN (IP PIN).

Fancy a bank loan? So do the fraudsters…

With your SSN and some other basic information, crooks can take out a bank loan in your name. Not only that, they can empty your bank account, spend using your credit cards, open up new utility accounts and even get treatment on your medical insurance.

You’ll only realize there’s a problem when you start to notice unfamiliar withdrawals from your bank or credit card statement or, worse still, debt collectors calling about a debt you didn’t even know existed.

The ways of fraudsters are mysterious and many

Make no mistake, identity theft crooks are resourceful and persistent. Here’s a brief rundown of some more techniques they use to get their hands on your valuable personal information:

  • Dumpster diving – going through your trash looking for discarded letters, bank statements or anything containing useful personal details
  • Stealing your wallet or purse – in a bar, at the gym or from your pocket
  • Skimming – using a device to record information from the magnetic strip on your credit or debit card, in a restaurant for example
  • Phishing via email – you give up personal information in response to an email you believe to be from your bank or other legitimate organization
  • Getting your credit report – pretending to be your employer or rental agent (your report contains details of credit cards etc.)

Avoiding the pain associated with identity theft

According to Identity Force, it takes 6 painful and frustrating months and up to 200 hours of effort to recover your identity after it has been stolen. There’s the possibility of a visit from the police or even an arrest and a criminal record in the worst-case scenario, all depending on how a crook uses your identity. Your credit score can be negatively affected, and your health can suffer badly as a result of stress.

There’s always the chance your bank or other financial institutions will make a good part or all of your loss, but this is by no means certain.

The best way to avoid the pain resulting from identity theft is to jealously guard your identity. Install good antivirus software on your computer and consider using a VPN for added protection. Never give out personal details.

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Don’t put anything containing personal information in the trash, never let your credit card out of your sight or accept help at the ATM.

A few basic precautions can go a long way to avoid being the next victim of identity theft.