What Is Identity Theft?
Identity theft is one of the fastest growing crimes in the United States. Identity theft happens when someone uses your personal information without your permission to get credit, cash, insurance, or other benefits, or to commit fraud or other crimes. Your personal information is your name, birth date, address, Social Security number, drivers’ license numbers, credit card numbers, bank account numbers, or other personal identifying information.
How Identity Theft Happens
Identity theft happens in many ways. An identity thief may:
- Steal your wallet or purse
- Steal your mail (either at the mailbox or unshredded discarded mail)
- Steal your information by posing on the telephone or Internet as a legitimate company and claiming that you have problem with an account
- Steal your credit reports by posing as an authorized user of the report, such as a business, landlord, or employer o Complete a change-of-address form to divert your mail to the thief o Steal information about you while at their job at a business, school, or financial institution
- Bribe someone who has access to your personal or financial institution
- Hack into computer records
- Con you or the employee of a company with your information into disclosing information
How Can You Tell If You Are A Victim Of Identity Theft?
Indications of identity theft are:
- Accounts appearing on your credit report that you do not recognize
- Receiving credit cards for which you did not apply
- Failing to receive bills or other mail
- Denial of credit for no apparent reason
- Receiving calls from debt collectors or companies for things you did not buy
How can you prevent identity theft?
There is no way to completely safeguard yourself from identity theft, any more than you can completely safeguard yourself from being the victim of a robbery or home invasion.
But there are a number of things you can do to minimize the risk of becoming a victim of identity theft.
Some of these things are:
- Get a cross-cut style paper shredder. Shred, rather than throw away, your mail that is trash, especially any credit card offers that you decline to use, credit applications, old checks and bank or credit card statements, and expired credit cards.
- Place passwords on your credit cards, bank accounts, and phone accounts. Avoid using passwords that are easily available to others, such as your mother’s maiden name, your birth date, your phone number, or a series of consecutive numbers.
- Keep your passwords for ATM machines, computer accounts, bank accounts, etc. in a safe place that only you can access, e.g., a locked drawer, a safe. Do not share or lend these passwords to anyone.
- Do not give out personal information on the telephone, through the mail, or on the Internet unless you have initiated the contact or know who you are dealing with.
Sometimes identity thieves pose as banks, credit card companies, government representatives, or Internet Service Providers to get you to provide personal information such as your Social Security number, account numbers, and other identifying information.
Before you share this information, confirm who you are dealing with. Call the telephone number listed on your account statement or in the telephone book, rather than taking the word of the caller, who may be an identity thief.
Do not give personal identifying information out loud when standing in a line or in a public place. Sometimes a store clerk, for example, will ask you for personal identifying information where it can be overheard by others. Offer to write the information down, rather than announcing it so others can hear. If you do this, take back the piece of paper you wrote the information on when you are finished with the transaction.
Do not carry your Social Security card in your wallet. Keep it in a secure place at home.
Do not use your Social Security number as an identifier, except when absolutely necessary. Ask to use other types of identifiers.
Do not carry multiple credit cards with you on a daily basis, if you do not plan to use them. If your purse or wallet gets lost or stolen, immediately alert all credit card companies of the loss or theft as well as the local police department. If you carry all of your credit cards with you, you increase your chances of theft or loss, and you may have difficulty getting credit while the cards are being replaced.
Ask about security procedures used in your workplace, medical provider offices, businesses, schools, or other institutions that collect your personal identifying information.
Ask who has access to the information and verify that there are procedures in place to safeguard the information. Find out if your information will be shared with others. Ask to keep your information confidential.
When ordering new checks, pick them up at the bank, rather than having them mailed to your house.
Balance your checkbooks, monitor the balances of your accounts, and carefully review your credit card statements. Look for unexplained withdrawals or charges and inquire about them promptly with the bank or credit card company.
Promptly remove all mail from your mailbox. If you will be away from your home for more than a day or so, arrange to have a trusted person collect your mail, or call the U.S. Postal Service at 1-800-275-8777 (or stop in to your local Post Office) to arrange a vacation hold.
The Post Office will hold your mail until you can pick it up. o To minimize or stop unsolicited credit card offers that are based on your credit report, call: 1-888-5-OPTOUT (1-888-567-8688). You will be asked for your Social Security number, which the consumer reporting agencies (credit bureaus) will need to match you with your credit file.
Update your virus protection on your computer regularly. Do not open files sent by strangers or open files, click on hyperlinks, or download programs from people or companies you do not know.
If you do need to provide personal or financial information on the Internet, look for indicators that the site is secure, like a lock icon on the browser’s status bar or a URL for a website that begins “https.” Be aware, however, that some identity thieves have forged security icons.
Before you dispose of a computer, delete all personal information it stored. Use a “wipe” utility program to overwrite the entire hard drive. o Avoid giving personal identifying information or financial information while talking on a cellular phone.
What to Do if You Are A Victim Of Identity Theft
Monitor your credit reports. If an identity thief uses your information to obtain credit, these accounts likely will show up on your credit report. You should order your credit reports once a year as a matter of course to monitor them, and more frequently if you have become the victim of identity theft. To get your annual free credit report, click here. E-mail address: email@example.com.