Synthetic identity theft can have catastrophic and irreversible results. Imagine trying to get a mortgage for your dream apartment, only to find out that your credit score has mysteriously dropped, and you’re now considered to be financially unreliable. You might then discover that multiple new bank accounts and credit cards have been opened in your name, and that you're the victim of synthetic identity theft. So what is synthetic identity theft? And how can you protect yourself?
Synthetic identity theft is when someone creates fake identities, either by combining stolen and fabricated information or by creating fake personas from scratch. For example, thieves can use a fake name and address, along with a real social security number, to create a synthetic identity.
There are a number of ways in which scammers can use such synthetic identities:
Scammers usually combine real and fake data to create a synthetic identity. They try to find people with no credit history, so they often exploit the social security numbers of children and minors. By doing this, they have less chance that an institution will reject their application due to pre-existing credit scores. Criminals usually just snatch these numbers if they spot them circulating in the open, but they can also buy stolen numbers on the dark web.
Stolen data sells for a lot of money on the dark web, as we explored in our dark web case study.
They also target minors because they are less likely to use the number anytime soon, so it will take longer for the ruse to be discovered. However, if you had your details stolen as a child, you’ll find out when you grow up and try to open a bank account or apply for financing on a car or house.
Social security numbers have also become randomized since 2011, so they contain no birthdate or geographical data. That makes them even easier to use for synthetic identity creation. There have even been cases when scammers used randomly generated non-existing numbers to open bank accounts.
After stealing or inventing the social security number, a criminal’s first goal is to get as high a credit score as possible. They can pair the number with other identifiable data to create a fake identity, and can then link this persona to an existing bank account. If they can get themselves registered as the authorized user of a pre-existing credit card, that can also boost their credit score.
As the score rises, the scammer becomes qualified for ever greater levels of credit. They open new accounts and get new cards, simultaneously improving their score and getting access to larger amounts of money. Finally, they cash out without repaying their credit and vanish.
When the bank or credit card company comes looking for their money, they’ll either find no one at all, or the trail that leads to the original innocent owner of the social security number.
Synthetic identity fraud has a high success rate, and it isn't easy to prevent. This is partly due to the outdated verification methods used by institutions like banks. Some of these organizations still rely on paper utility bills and other easily falsified documents.
It is quite challenging to detect synthetic identity theft cases in the early stages of the scam. However, as scammers seem to have certain behaviorial patterns, organizations pay more attention to studying their customers' banking habits to identify such suspicious schemes before it's too late.
For individual users, we recommend the following actions to prevent synthetic identity frauds:
Use a VPN. A virtual private network encrypts your traffic and masks your IP address, mitigating the risk of getting hacked. You can install the NordVPN app on your smartphone, computer, tablet or router and prevent wrongdoers from spying on your online activities.
With one NordVPN account, you can protect up to six devices and significantly improve your digital security. It’s better to be proactive than wait for an incident to happen and then fight the consequences.