What is Identity Theft?
Identity theft occurs when someone acquires your personal information and uses it without your knowledge to commit fraud or theft. It is a serious crime and cases are growing. An all-too-common example is when an identity thief uses your personal information to open a credit card account in your name.
No matter how cautious you are, there is no way to completely prevent identity theft from occurring. But there are ways you can help minimize your risk. This page contains valuable information on how you can protect yourself by managing your personal information wisely, the warning signs of identity theft, and what to do if you do become a victim.
- Don’t give out personal information on the phone, through the mail or over the Internet unless you have initiated to contact or are sure you know whom you are dealing with.
- Do not carry your Social Security card or number with you; keep it in a secure place. Carry only the identification and credit and debit cards that you need.
- Do not put your address, phone number or driver’s license number on credit card sales receipts.
- Social Security numbers or phone numbers should not be printed on your checks.
- Shred or properly destroy documents that you no longer need, such as charge receipts, copies of credit applications, insurance forms, physician statements, checks and bank statements, expired charge cards and credit offers you receive in the mail.
- If possible, secure your credit card, debit card and bank accounts passwords or personal identification numbers (PINs). Avoid using easily available information like birth date, last four digits of your Social Security number or your phone number.
- Secure personal information in your home, particularly if you have roommates or hire outside help.
- Promptly remove mail from your mailbox. If you are planning to be away from home and can not pick up your mail, call the U.S. Postal Service at 1-800-275-8777 to request that your mail be held.
- Ask about information security procedures in your workplace. Find out who has access to your personal information and verify that records are kept in a secure location. Ask about the disposal procedures for those records as well.
- Before revealing any personally identifying information (for example, on an application), find out how it will be used and secured, and whether it will be shared with others. Ask if you have a choice about the use of your information. Can you choose to have it kept confidential?
Check your Credit Report
Order a copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit-reporting agencies every year. Make sure it is accurate and includes only those activities you have authorized. The law allows credit bureaus to charge you up to $9.00 for a copy of your credit report.
By checking your report on a regular basis you can catch mistakes and fraud before they wreak havoc on your personal finances. Don’t underestimate the importance of this step.
Equifax – www.equifax.com
To order your credit report, call: 1-800-685-1111
To report fraud, call: 1-800-525-6285
Experian – www.experian.com
To order your credit report or report fraud, call: 1-888-397-3742
TransUnion – www.transunion.com
To order your credit report, call: 1-800-916-8800
To report fraud, call: 1-800-680-7289
Although there may be no warning signs that precede an identity theft, there are some reasons to be concerned. These include:
- Your bills or statements do not arrive on time. A missing credit card bill could mean that someone has taken over your account and changed your billing address.
- You are denied credit for no apparent reason.
- You begin to receive bills from companies where you haven’t bought anything.
- Collection agencies begin trying to collect on debts you do not recognize.
If you do become a Victim
Sometimes an identity thief can strike even if you have been very careful about keeping you personal information to yourself. If you suspect that your personal information has been hijacked and misappropriated to commit fraud or theft, take action immediately. Keep a record of your conversations and correspondence.
Exactly which steps you should take to protect yourself depends on your circumstances and how your identity has been misused. However, three basic actions are appropriate in almost every case.
- Contact the fraud departments of each of the three major credit bureaus.
You should request that a “fraud alert” be placed in your file, as well as a victim’s statement asking that creditors call you before opening any new accounts or changing your existing accounts. This can help prevent an identity thief from opening additional accounts in your name.
At the same time, order copies of your credit reports from the credit bureaus. Credit bureaus must give you a free copy of your report if your reports are inaccurate because of fraud, and you request it in writing. Review your reports carefully to make sure no additional fraudulent accounts have been opened in your name or unauthorized changes made to your existing accounts. Also, check the inquiry section of your report and request that fraudulent “inquiries” be removed from your report.
Please note: Fraud alerts and victim statements are voluntary services provided by the credit bureaus. Creditors do no have to consider them when granting credit. That’s why it is vital to continue checking your reports periodically. In addition, fraud alerts and victim statements expire; you need to renew them periodically. Ask each bureau about its policy.
- Close accounts that have been tampered with or opened fraudulently.
Notify all creditors and financial institutions, in writing and by phone, that your name and accounts have been used without your permission. If an existing account has been stolen ask the creditor or bank to issue new cards, checks and account numbers. Carefully monitor the account activity and report any suspicious activity to the issuing company immediately.
- File a local police report.
Provide as much documentation as you can, such as debt collection letters, credit reports and other evidence of fraudulent activity. This information will help the police file a complete report.
Be persistent! Stress the importance of a police report, as most creditors require one to resolve your dispute. Credit bureaus will automatically black the fraudulent accounts and bad debts from appearing on your credit report, but only if you can give them a copy of the police report. If you can not get the local police to take a report, try your county police. If that does not work try your state police.
- Also report the crime to the following federal law enforcement agencies.
Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
Consumer Response Center
600 Pennsylvania Ave NW
Washington DC 20580
The FTC is collecting identity theft complaint from consumers to help law enforcement agencies worldwide.
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
Federal Office Building
1501 Lakeside Avenue
Cleveland, OH 44114
The FBI investigates cases of identity theft and recognizes that identity theft is a component of many crimes. These include bank fraud, mail fraud, wire fraud, bankruptcy fraud, insurance fraud, fraud against the government and terrorism.