It’s usually simple to spot when one of your bank accounts or credit cards has been compromised: you’ll see a transaction you don’t recognize, then alert your bank that a thief has managed to get your information. But how do you know if someone opens a new bank account in your name without your knowledge?
Since these incidents can often go unreported, it’s hard to pinpoint the exact number of people who’ve had accounts opened in their name. However, the Federal Trade Commission received over 110,000 complaints about new account bank fraud in 2022 alone. The number is large enough to send a signal to everyone: Scammers are commonplace, and the best way to protect yourself is to be proactive.
How fraudsters open bank accounts in your name
Opening a bank account requires a few key pieces of information: name, a government-issued ID and a Social Security number or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number. So, if your Social Security Number is floating around the dark web, it’s fairly easy for a fraudster to create a fake ID and use your SSN to open a new account.
Scammers can also take the old-school approach: digging through your trash and uncovering old tax returns or other documents with your confidential details.
Why do scammers open accounts in other people’s names?
Creating an account under someone else’s name opens up a world of malicious possibilities. In some cases, the scammer’s goal might be obvious: They want to steal money by bouncing checks or overdrawing the account. More complex plans might include laundering money from illegal activities or hiding money to evade taxes.
The trouble is, a scammer could easily do this and you’d have no idea since this information doesn’t always hit your credit report.
Banks have also opened accounts in customers’ names
Hackers in basements aren’t the only ones you should be worried about when it comes to accounts being opened in your name without your knowledge. Banks themselves have also been part of the problem.
Wells Fargo is the most egregious example -- the bank paid a $3 billion fine for a scandal that involved opening millions of fake accounts in an attempt to reach sales goals. Bank of America also opened new credit card accounts without customers’ knowledge. And U.S. Bank was fined by the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau for opening fake credit cards and deposit accounts for unsuspecting consumers.
How to check for bank accounts you didn’t sign up for
Is someone out there masquerading as you? Here’s how to find out.
Check your credit reports
You can request your credit report from each of the three credit bureaus for free once a week. It’s important to note these reports won’t necessarily include details of a new bank account. Savings and checking accounts in good standing don’t affect your credit report. However, if someone has overdrawn an account in your name or let unpaid fees pile up, that may be on the report.
Review your ChexSystems report
In addition to free credit reports, you’re also legally entitled to a free annual report from ChexSystems, a consumer reporting agency that collects information about your banking history. This includes activity on your checking accounts, savings accounts and money market accounts.
ChexSystems offers two reports: a consumer disclosure report, which includes details about any past negative behaviors and a consumer score report. Banks use this information when deciding whether to approve your account application, and you can use it to identify potentially fraudulent activity.
Review your online bank statements
Review your bank statements monthly, and if any transactions look suspicious, call your bank or credit union immediately. The sooner you alert them of fraud, the safer you’ll be.
However, this will only help you spot fraudulent transactions on accounts you’re aware of. Unless your email address or physical mailing address is used on an account a scammer opened, you may not receive statements for these accounts.
What to do if you find a bank account in your name
If you discover a bank account you didn’t open with your name on it, here’s what you need to do:
Notify your bank or credit union
Call the financial institution that holds the account to alert them to the fraudulent account. You should also contact one of the three major credit reporting agencies -- Equifax, Experian or TransUnion -- to notify them. They will then alert the other two agencies.
Here’s how to report fraud to each agency:
- Equifax: Call 888-836-6351 or submit an alert online
- Experian: Call 888-397-3742 or submit an alert online
- TransUnion: Call 800-916-8800 or submit an alert online
Consider a credit freeze or fraud alert
If someone manages to open a bank account in your name, it’s important to stop them from opening any other accounts, like credit cards or loans. You can do this by setting up a fraud alert or credit freeze to warn all the major credit bureaus and banks about the increased potential for fraud associated with your name and Social Security number.
A fraud alert requires lenders and banks to contact you before approving any new loans or lines of credit. To file a fraud alert, you only need to contact one of the bureaus. A credit freeze is more serious and means no new loans or lines of credit can be opened in your name. This might be helpful if you need to prevent any new accounts from being opened while you assess your credit report. You must notify each of the three bureaus to create a credit freeze.
File a police report
While your local law enforcement office isn’t likely to get involved in a case of identity theft, it’s helpful to have written documentation of the incident, particularly if you report the incident to the Federal Trade Commission.
Report identity theft to the FTC
Opening a fraudulent bank account is a form of identity theft, so you should also file a report with the Federal Trade Commission at IdentityTheft.gov. You should attach a copy of the police report when you file. The FTC will then provide you with a recovery plan to mitigate the damage to your finances.
Take an inventory of your entire digital life
If someone has your Social Security number, don’t be surprised if they also have your email address, social media handles and other private information. Change your passwords and enable two-step verification on all your accounts to provide an additional layer of security.
How to prevent bank account fraud
Bank account fraud isn’t going away, and online thieves are becoming more sophisticated. Follow these steps to protect yourself from becoming a victim.
Create secure passwords
Using a simple, easy-to-guess password like “1234,” your last name, birthday or child’s name won’t cut it. Instead, experts recommend using a mix of upper- and lowercase letters, numbers and special characters and creating a different password for each website you use.
If you’re worried about remembering more complicated passwords, consider investing in an encrypted password manager.
Keep your information safe
Shred any documents that contain identifying information before trashing or recycling them. This includes monthly statements and offers for new credit cards and bank accounts. Keep physical documents in a locked safe or scan and upload them using secure cloud storage and password protection.
Also, be careful who you share your information with. Don’t give away your personal details to anyone who asks. Know how to identify a scam and only provide information to trusted sources through secure means.
Monitor your credit reports and bank account activity
Regularly reviewing your credit reports and bank statements can help you catch fraudulent activity sooner. You can request a credit report from each of the three credit bureaus each week, so make it a habit to check in on your credit a few times a year. Look for suspicious activity, like accounts you don’t recognize, and promptly alert the credit bureaus if you spot anything.
You can also set up alerts to notify you of large transactions, but don’t rely solely on them. It’s important to review your statements regularly for any discrepancies. Fraudsters sometimes test how closely you monitor your accounts by making a few small charges.
Consider a credit monitoring service
If you want added peace of mind, you can pay for more protection from an identity theft protection or credit monitoring service. These services will generally run you around $100 each year, but some of them will alert you as soon as your info is on the dark web. If you have a credit card, you might have access to a credit monitoring service for free.
The bottom line
There are plenty of bad actors out there who prey on private information for their personal financial gain. Be mindful of the rising number of identity thefts and cyber crimes when you’re sharing information online. Anyone with malicious intent can go a long way with your name, birthday and Social Security number, so take extra precautions to safeguard your data and act fast if you spot anything suspicious.