As National Cybersecurity Awareness Month moves forward, it’s important for individuals and businesses to understand that identity theft is not one single crime. While it is broken up into different categories based on what the thief did with the victim’s information—like open a new credit card account, buy a car, or seek medical care—it’s also important to understand that there’s a lot of crossover potential. An identity thief can drain your existing check account, rent an apartment, and even get a job in your name, all of which fall under different categories.
While many people focus on the financial side of identity theft, one of the more overlooked types is government identity theft. This type of identity theft happens in a variety of ways, like applying for benefits under your name, getting a job while providing your Social Security number, or even filing a fraudulent tax return using your name and false income information. Any of the different types can not only come back on you for the fraud, but they can cause delays if you ever did need to apply legitimately.
- Employment Fraud – There are few reasons someone might use your identifying information to get a job. The most obvious answer is because they don’t want to pay the taxes themselves, but it could also be because they cannot pass the required background check, they currently are not eligible to work, or they’re drawing disability or unemployment benefits. Unfortunately, one of the ways you find out about this fraud might not come about until you file your tax return for the next year. That’s when you’ll discover that your adjusted gross income reflects an amount much higher than your actual income, and your amount owed will be based on that new higher amount.
- Benefits Fraud – With access to your stolen information, a thief can commit benefits fraud by applying for or securing disability benefits, unemployment benefits, WIC and SNAP or “food stamp” benefits even Social Security or veteran’s benefits. Apart from the outright theft of taxpayer dollars involved in this crime, you stand to face scrutiny if “you’re” found to be receiving these benefits but are ineligible. Even worse, should you ever actually need your benefits, someone else has already been claiming them.
- Tax Return Fraud – This is perhaps one of the fastest growing types of government identity theft, due in part to the abundance of Social Security numbers that thieves can purchase online. Projections for 2016 put a number of fraudulent tax refunds at around $21 billion dollars, and our current tax return filing system has little safeguards in place to stop it. Even worse than the theft is the fact that victims of tax return fraud find their own much-needed tax refunds can be delayed while the issue is resolved.
The Identity Theft Resource Center’s 2016 Aftermath report found that some survey respondents had to resort to taking out loans, borrowing money from friends or family members, and relying on donations from churches and charities to make ends meet once their anticipated refunds were held up. In many cases, respondents reported that they simply had to do without their much-needed funds.
In order to help combat government identity theft, it’s important for individuals to safeguard their information so they know where it ends up. It’s important for everyone—but especially for anyone who knows their personally identifiable information may have already been compromised in a data breach or other identity theft case—to be on the lookout for signs that someone may be using their information fraudulently. Watch out for unexpected benefits statements, medical bills for care you didn’t receive, even a W-2 form with skewed amounts, and then take action to protect yourself.
Anyone can be a victim of identity theft, anyone can use our services, and anyone can help us help others. If you found this information useful, please consider donating to the Identity Theft Resource Center to help us keep our services free to the public.