Identity theft occurs when someone takes your personally identifiable information (PII), and misuses it, abuses it, and adapts it to his or her own life, often for financial gain. When an identity thief does this, your good name is soiled—the name you have worked so hard to keep in good standing. Rectifying it can be as simple as a phone call, or it can be as difficult as having to prove your innocence to a jury of your peers.

Identity theft, also known as identity fraud, encompasses various types of crimes. The identifying factor is that a criminal has wrongfully acquired and adopted someone else’s personal data. This can include the victim’s name, Social Security Number, address, date of birth, credit card information, bank account number, or any other type of personal information.

When identity theft affects you, it can consume your time and ruin your credit. You become a liability for an employer or a college administrator. You may be perceived as someone who has bad credit as a result of your own doing. You have a black mark on your reputation. In short, it is the victims, not the criminals, who have a difficult time functioning in a credit-driven society.

What follows is a real-world example of this type of crime:

An 18-year-old man was driving in his vehicle, and he rolled through a stop sign. He was pulled over by a police officer who witnessed the offense. When the police officer checked his information, it was determined that there was a warrant out for his arrest for numerous prior violations. After his arrest and subsequent trip to the police station, they learned that his Social Security Number was tied to a man who was 49 years old. This young man learned that his identity had been stolen a number of years ago! The identity thief had opened up several businesses in the young man’s name while he was still a child. Identity theft is the only crime that I am aware of in which you are presumed guilty until proven innocent.

The most efficient way to protect your identity is with an identity theft protection service and get a credit freeze

Robert Siciliano personal and home security specialist to Home Security Source and author of 99 Things You Wish You Knew Before Your Identity Was Stolen. Disclosures.

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