Can thieves steal identities with only a name and address?
In short, the answer is “no.” Which is a good thing, as your name and address are in fact part of the public record. Anyone can get a hold of them. However, because they are public information, they are still tools that identity thieves can use.
If you think of your identity as a jigsaw puzzle, your name and address are the first two pieces that they can use to build a bigger picture and ultimately put your identity at risk.
With that, let’s look at some other key pieces of your identity that are associated with your name and address—and what you can do to protect them.
For starters, this information is so general that it is of little value in of itself to an identity thief. Yet a determined identity thief can do a bit of legwork and take a few extra steps to use them as a springboard for other scams. For example, with your name and address a thief could:
Research public databases for further pieces of information about you.
There are volumes of public information that are readily available should someone want to add some more pieces to your identity jigsaw puzzle, such as:
- How long you’ve lived in your current home, what you paid for it, and what it’s valued at today.
- If you’re a registered voter and if you voted in a recent election. (Not how you voted, though!)
- Also, if you’re a veteran or the owner of a cat or dog (through pet licenses).
In the U.S., the availability of such information will vary from state-to-state and different levels of government may have different regulations about what information gets filed—in addition to whether and how those reports are made public. Globally, different nations and regions will collect varying amounts of public information and have their own regulations in place as well. More broadly, though, many of these public databases are now online. Consequently, accessing them is easier than the days when getting a hold of that information required an in-person visit a library or public office.
Send you phishing attacks and scams by physical mail.
Phishing attacks aren’t just for email, texts, and direct messages. In fact, thieves are turning to old tricks via old-fashioned physical mail. That includes sending phony offers or by impersonating officials of government institutions, all designed to trick you into giving up your personally identifiable information (PII).
What might that look like in your mailbox? They can take the form of bogus lottery prizes that request bank information for routing (non-existent) winnings. Another favorite of scammers are bogus tax notifications that demand immediate payment. In all, many can look quite convincing at first blush, yet there are ready ways you can spot them. In fact, many of the tips for avoiding these physical mail phishing attacks are the same for avoiding phishing attacks online, which we outline in detail here.
Redirect your physical mail, essentially committing mail fraud.
Recently, I’ve seen a few news stories like this where thieves reportedly abuse the change-of-address system with the U.S. Postal Service. Thieves will simply forward your mail to an address of their choosing, which can drop sensitive information like bank and credit card statements in their mailbox. From there, they could potentially have new checks sent to them or perhaps an additional credit card—both of which they can use to drain your accounts and run up your bills.
The Postal Service has mechanisms in place to prevent this, however. Among which, the Postal Service will send you a physical piece of mail to confirm the forwarding. So, if you ever receive mail from the Postal Service, open it and give it a close look. If you get such a notice and didn’t order the forwarding, visit your local post office to get things straightened out. Likewise, if it seems like you’re missing bills in the mail, that’s another good reason to follow up with your post office and the business in question to see if there have been any changes made in your mail forwarding.
Protecting your good name (and identity too)
So while your name and address are out there for practically all to see, they’re largely of little value to an identity thief on their own. But as mentioned above, they are key puzzle pieces to your overall identity. With enough of those other pieces in hand, that’s where an identity thief can cause trouble. Other crucial pieces of your identity include:
Your Social Security Number or tax ID number:
Let’s start with the biggest one. This is the master key to your identity, as it is one of the most unique identifiers you have. As I covered in my earlier blog on Social Security fraud, a thief can unlock everything from credit history and credit line to tax refunds and medical care with your Social Security or tax ID number. In extreme cases, they can use it to impersonate you for employment, healthcare, and even in the event of an arrest.
You can protect your Social Security Number by keeping it locked in a safe place (rather than in your wallet) and by providing your number only when absolutely necessary. For more tips on keeping your number safe, drop by that blog on Social Security fraud I mentioned.
Your passport and driver’s license:
Thieves have figured out ways of getting around the fact that IDs like these include a photo. They may be able to modify or emulate these documents “well enough” to pull off certain types of fraud, particularly if the people requesting their bogus documents don’t review them with a critical eye.
Protecting yourself in this case means knowing where these documents are at any time. (With passports, you may want to store those securely like your Social Security or tax ID number.) Also be careful when you share this information, as the identifiers on these documents are highly unique. If you’re uncomfortable with sharing this information, you can ask if other forms of ID might work—or if this information is really needed at all. Also, take a moment to make copies of these documents and store them in a secure place. This can help you provide important info to the proper authorities if they’re lost or stolen.
Your card and account information:
With data breaches large and small making the news (and many more that do not), keeping a sharp eye on your accounts is a major part of identity theft prevention. We talk about this topic quite often, and it’s worth another mention because protecting these means protecting yourself from thieves who’re after direct access to your finances and more.
Secure your digital accounts for banking, credit cards, financials, and shopping by using strong, unique passwords for each of your accounts that you change every 60 days. Sound like a lot of work? Let a password manager do it for you, which you can find in comprehensive online protection software. By changing your strong passwords and keeping them unique can help prevent you from becoming a victim if your account information is part of a breach—by the time a crook attempts to use it, you may have changed it and made it out of date.
Extra steps for extra identity protection
In addition to protecting the core forms of identity mentioned above, a few other good habits go a long way toward keeping your identity secure.
1. Install and use online protection software: By protecting your devices, you protect what’s on them, like your personal information. Comprehensive online protection software can protect your identity in several ways, like create and manage the strong, unique passwords we talked about and provide further services that monitor and protect your identity—in addition to digital shredders that can permanently remove sensitive documents (simply deleting them won’t do that alone.)
2. Shred your stuff: Identity theft where thieves dig through trash or go “dumpster diving” for literal scraps of personal info in bills and statements, has been an issue for some time. You can prevent it by shredding up any paper medical bills, tax documents, and checks once you’re through with them. Paper shredders are inexpensive, and let’s face it, kind of fun too. Also, if you’re traveling, have a trusted someone collect your mail or have the post office put a temporary hold on your mail. Thieves still poach mail from mailboxes too.
3. Go paperless: Getting statements online cuts the paper out of the equation and thus removes another thing that a thief can physically steal and possibly use against you. Whether you use electronic statements through your bank, credit card company, medical provider, or insurance company, use a secure password and a secure connection provided by a VPN. Both will make theft of your personal info far tougher on identity thieves.
4. Use a VPN: A VPN is a Virtual Private Network, a service that protects your data and privacy online. It creates an encrypted tunnel to keep you anonymous, by masking your IP address, while connecting to public Wi-Fi hotspots. This is a great way to shield your information from crooks and snoops while you’re banking, shopping, or handling any kind of sensitive information online.
5. Monitor your accounts: Give your statements a close look each time they come around. While many companies and institutions have fraud detection mechanisms in place, they don’t always catch every instance of fraud. Look out for strange purchases or charges and follow up with your bank or credit card company if you suspect fraud. Even the smallest charge could be a sign that something shady is afoot.
6. Check your credit report: This is a powerful tool for spotting identity theft. And in many cases, it’s free to do so. In the U.S., the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) requires the major credit agencies to provide you with a free credit check at least once every 12 months. Canada provides this service, and the UK has options to receive free reports as well, along with several other nations. It’s a great idea to check your credit report, even if you don’t suspect a problem.
Your name and address are just two pieces of a larger puzzle
While thieves need more than just your name and address to commit the overwhelming majority of fraud, your name and address are centerpieces of the larger jigsaw puzzle that is your overall identity.
And the interesting thing is your puzzle gets larger and larger as time goes on. With each new account you create and service that you sign into, that’s one more piece added to the puzzle. Thieves love getting their hands on any pieces they can because with enough of them in place they can try and pull a fast one in your name. By looking after each piece and knowing what your larger jigsaw puzzle looks like, you can help keep identity thieves out of your business and your life.