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Identity theft is very common in the United States and costs millions of dollars each year.  In 2019, one in nine people in the US experienced some form of ID theft. In addition to the financial cost, having your identity stolen is stressful and can take a long time to recover from. Identity theft recovery is a multi-step process that is challenging for many seniors.

As thieves have gotten more sophisticated, they’ve improved their tactics and devised new ways to steal our identities and evade detection. Many identity thieves are now turning to synthetic identity theft. Synthetic ID theft is the fastest growing type of ID theft. This type of identity theft now represents approximately 70% of all identity thefts.

What is synthetic identity theft?

Synthetic identity theft is a form of identity theft in which identity thieves take a valid social security number and combine this number with other valid or made-up identity elements to create a whole new identity. Other identity elements used can include fake or real peoples’ addresses, emails, phone numbers, or other government identification information. With synthetic identity theft, these different identity components are combined to create a whole new identity. Stolen identity information can be bought and sold on the dark web. Identity thieves might also alter a real person’s identity information in small ways to make it look like a new person. Thieves also completely fabricate a totally false identity using made up personal identity information.

Why do identity thieves create synthetic identities?

Thieves use synthetic identities to commit fraud and steal money. The thieves may use the synthetic identity information to apply for credit cards or loans, file tax returns, obtain medical care, or obtain government benefits, such as unemployment or social security. Synthetic identity theft can be hard to detect. This is because the identities created often look legitimate on their face, making them hard to spot. Thieves tend to target groups who don’t often access credit accounts, reducing the likelihood that the identity theft will be detected. Targeted groups include seniors, children, and incarcerated persons.

What can you do to protect yourself?

  • Protect your social security number. Keep your social security card in a safe place and don’t share your number with others. Shred documents that have your social security number on them.
  • Regularly review your credit report and credit score. Federal law entitles you to obtain a free credit report every twelve months, but you must request your report. Click here to request your free credit report.
  • Learn to recognize phishing emails, text messages, and phone scams. Don’t click on links or attachments from unknown email addresses. Click here to learn more about how to spot and protect yourself from phishing attacks.
  • Don’t share personal identifying information on social media.
  • Do not answer calls from unknown numbers.
  • Trust your gut! If something seems off, it probably is, so proceed cautiously.


If you are a victim of identity theft, you can report the identity theft and get a personalized recovery plan by clicking here.

For a checklist of steps to take to recover from and report identity theft, click here.

If your identity is stolen, you can call Contra Costa Senior Legal Services at (925) 609-7900 for information on reporting the identity theft and protecting your identity.