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Theft can be devastating, and losing your identity in the process is even more troubling. With the increase in online activity, identity theft has been on the rise where thieves obtain your personal information by hacking an online account or stealing physical documents. This information can then be used to steal money, set up fraudulent accounts, or impersonate you in transactions. Protecting your sensitive information on and offline is essential, as well as knowing how to manage fallout should your identity be stolen.

Identity theft and fraud explained

Identity theft is the action of stealing someone's personal information to use it for criminal activity, while identity fraud is when criminals use personal information to commit a crime. While they may seem similar, one refers to a criminal obtaining information via online hacking or physical theft. In contrast, fraudulent use may include applying for credit cards, impersonation, or access to other sensitive information.

Anyone can be a target of identity theft and fraud. Still, those that are most vulnerable are likely to have weak online security, likely to click on random emailed links, or manage sensitive information poorly. With increasingly detailed profiles online, people are providing more personal information than ever before, allowing savvy identity thieves to link timestamps, photos, and behaviours to prey on unsuspecting individuals.

Protect yourself against identity theft

Protecting yourself from identity theft and fraud takes a multi-pronged approach, both offline and online. Keeping personal documents, like passports and bank statements, secure in your home is a great first step. When disposing of documents, shredding or cutting them up will safeguard against theft. If you're travelling, leave copies of important documents at home just in case the original is stolen — they’ll come in handy when trying to cancel or reissue documents. Best practice for paying with a debit or credit card is to always keep control of your card (don’t let the salesperson take it out of your sight) and to cover up your PIN as you enter it. These steps will slow any attempts to "skim" or steal your information.

As more people share personal information online, the Internet is becoming a hunting ground for identity thieves. Strong, unique passwords are the first line of defence, but consider using two-factor identification or a password protection service to manage your virtual vault.

Refrain from clicking on suspicious links in emails or instant messages, as these can create vulnerabilities for your online identity; identity thieves will use these as a gateway to your accounts — once they're in, they can start to wreak havoc.

Be mindful of what you share online too. It can be exciting to showcase pictures of your home, kids, or vacation, but these can all be all little clues anyone with nefarious intentions can piece together a picture of your life and activities, figuring out where you live, who your kids are, and when you're not at home. A word of caution — while your profile may be set to private or friends only, don't assume you're safe. Hackers can still access your accounts and use information that you only intended for a close circle.

Ramp up security with your online account providers, like banking or cell phone services. Most providers will have extra verification steps, like a passcode for telephone services, to ensure they speak with the actual account holder. This can prevent thieves from reassigning your phone number or making unlawful transactions from your accounts. Similarly, you can set up alerts and lock credit bureau accounts, preventing thieves from opening accounts in your name.

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What to do if your identity's been stolen

Even with the best of efforts to protect yourself, your personal information can still fall into the hands of the wrong person. If you suspect your personal information has been compromised, the first thing to do is stay calm and collect all necessary documents — think receipts, emails, and account numbers. You should also contact your financial institution and place flags on all of your accounts, and follow this up by changing your passwords for both the impacted accounts, as well as any others that may be linked. If you've had physical documents stolen (like a passport or licence), contact the issuing agency to cancel the identification and issue a new one.

Contacting the police and making a report is advisable, as it will help document the issue and provide support throughout the process. If you're caught in a situation where your information is held hostage, Canada's Anti Fraud Centre recommends not paying but rather working with law enforcement to regain control.

How your home insurance can help

Dealing with the repercussions of identity theft can be long, exhausting your resources. That's where your home insurance may come in handy. We know — it begs the question, "what does my home insurance cover?" Well, it’s time to review your coverage — Onlia home insurance policies will actually provide financial support if you’ve become a victim of identity theft. Recouping from identity theft can be a long road, as you work to untangle connected accounts and new passwords, but your home insurance policy can help you through the recovery process.

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