Identity theft is a serious problem that has grown dramatically over the past several years. The explosion in the information technology industry has made it faster and easier to access information and, consequently, to steal it. The Federal Government estimates that as many as 9 million Americans have their identities stolen each year. The financial and personal consequences of having confidential information stolen can be staggering and long-lasting. Once your identity has been stolen, criminals can withdraw money from your bank accounts, incur large credit card debt, and/or obtain loans or welfare benefits in your name. Victims must spend significant time and money undoing the damage and must maintain vigilance long after the crime has been detected to ensure that the problem does not recur.
What Is Identity Theft?
Identity theft occurs when someone takes your personal identifying information (for example, your name, birthdate, Social Security Number) without your permission and uses it for fraudulent activities. Four out of five victims of identity theft have no idea what led to the theft of their personal information.
This can go on for years without your knowledge, leaving you with a damaged reputation and ruined credit. In extreme cases, innocent people have even ended up with criminal records.
5 Tips to Protect Yourself
Ensure that your internet connection is secure.
- The web page URL - pages with a secure internet connection begins with https, not http.
- A lock icon somewhere in the browser window surrounding the web page. You can click the icon to see details of the site's security.
Keep your information private.
- Store all personal information in a safe place. PIN numbers should be separate from credit cards and account information. Use PIN numbers with a combination of letters, numbers and symbols and avoid using obvious identifiers such as birthdates and phone numbers.
- Shred or destroy all papers with financial or personal information. Be especially careful with credit card offers.
- Use a secure mailbox. Credit card bills, financial account statements, and tax notices left in unsecured mail boxes can disappear without your knowledge.
Be careful sharing your personal information.
- Look out for "pretexting." Thieves may call or email potential victims posing as representatives of legitimate institutions to ask for information, often under the pretense of "routine security checks." Be especially wary of unsolicited email, even if they look official. Contact the institution requesting the information to make sure it's legitimate.
- Don't give out your Social Security number unless it's absolutely necessary.
Keep track of your credit.
Monitor your bank statements regularly and review your credit report at least once or twice a year. Your credit report includes where you live, how you pay your bills, whether you've ever been sued or arrested, or if you've filed for bankruptcy.
- Make sure you recognize all activity and follow up immediately if you do not.
- Request a free credit report from the Annual Credit Report Request Service.
- Be alert for monthly bills that don't show up on time - identity thieves may have changed your address
Check out products that offer identity theft protection.
Like MetLife Defender. Many of these products will help keep your information safe and monitor your credit for you.
How to Avoid Identity Theft
While there is no guaranteed way of preventing identity theft or fraud, the following steps can help you minimize the risks.
Keep all personal information in a safe place. Keep PIN numbers separate from credit cards and account information. Encode PIN numbers with a mixture of letters, numbers and symbols and avoid using obvious identifiers such as birthdates and phone numbers.
Don't carry extra credit cards. Cancel any credit card accounts that you don't use. Take all store receipts with you after a purchase.
Shred or otherwise destroy all papers containing financial information or identifiers. Don't simply throw them in the trash. Be especially careful with credit card offers.
Keep computer "firewalls" and virus protection up-to-date. This is particularly important if your Internet connection is "always on" even if your computer is powered off (e.g., a cable connection).
Don't give out your Social Security number unless it is absolutely necessary, particularly over the Internet or telephone. Don't print your Social Security number or your phone number on checks.
Don't share personal information by phone or e-mail unless you initiated the contact. Be especially wary of unsolicited e-mails asking for personal information, even if they look official. Contact the institution requesting the information by phone or in person, not by replying to the e-mail, to confirm a request is legitimate. Never open attachments to unsolicited e-mails.
Check monthly credit card and financial account statements carefully; make sure there are no charges you don't recognize. Be alert for monthly bills that do not show up on time - identity thieves may have changed your address.
Guard deposit slips as carefully as you do checks. Thieves can use them to withdraw money by writing a bad check, depositing it into your account, and asking for part of the deposit in cash.
Don't mail any items that contain personal data from an unsecured mailbox. Take them to the post office or a United States Postal Service mailbox.
Follow up immediately if a creditor or merchant calls about charges you don't recognize.
Check with your employer to ensure that your personal information is properly safeguarded.
Check your credit report regularly, at least once or twice a year. Make sure you recognize all entries, and follow up immediately if you do not.
Reading Your Credit Report
Your credit report contains a great deal of personal information. It includes where you live and how you pay your bills as well as whether you've ever been sued, arrested, or have filed for bankruptcy.
There are three nationwide credit reporting companies: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. These companies sell the information in your report to creditors, insurers, employers, and other businesses that use it to evaluate such things as applications for credit, insurance, and employment. Note that employers may not access your credit information without your written consent.
A recent amendment to the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) requires that each of the three credit reporting companies provide you with a free copy of your credit report once every twelve months. That means you can get three copies of the report each year—one from each of the credit-reporting companies.
The three credit reporting companies have set up a central location for obtaining credit reports. It is no longer necessary to contact the three companies directly; the Annual Credit Report Request Service can provide any or all of them. You can contact them at:
Annual Credit Report Request Service
PO Box 105281
Atlanta, GA 30348-5281
Carefully checking your credit report at regular intervals — or if something makes you suspicious — is one of the best ways to avoid identity theft. Look for these things when reviewing your credit report:
Check accuracy of all information, including your Social Security number and past addresses.
Check to make sure you are aware of all accounts listed and that balances match your records.
Look for any suspicious activity, including inquiries about credit cards, loans, or leases for which you did not apply.
Check the section listing people or institutions that have requested your credit history. Thieves may pose as landlords or employers to obtain credit information.
If you notice any incorrect or suspicious information, contact the reporting credit company immediately. Follow up with a letter describing the errors, and ask to be notified in writing when the problem is resolved or remediated. If the errors indicate illegal activity, use the information outlined in the What to Do If Your Identity Is Stolen section of this article as a guide to what to do.
What to Do If Your Identity Is Stolen
Tell your banks & creditors.
Close all accounts that were used fraudulently and get new account numbers for all other cards. Ask that the accounts you close be noted as "closed at customer request," rather than "card lost or stolen."
Report it to the local police.
Identity fraud is a federal crime. Ask the police for a copy of the report, the name of your investigator, and the report number. This will help you dispute fraudulent credit card charges and entries.
Contact a credit company.
Ask one of the three major credit companies - Equifax, Experian, or TransUnion - to flag your account (the other two credit companies will automatically be notified). Provide the credit company with brief description of what happened, so that all future transactions can be verified with you.
Inform the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
Call their Identity Theft helpline at 877-438-4338 or visit their website, they have many resources for identity theft victims.
Keep Detailed Records
If you are a victim of identity theft, it is critical that you keep detailed and accurate records of all remediation action. The FTC offers an "Identity Theft Affidavit" (available at www.ftc.gov/idtheft) to help you accurately record details of the crime. Many credit companies and financial institutions accept this form to handle your investigation.Also:
- Keep a detailed log of all calls and conversations related to the problem. Note dates, phone numbers, names of people you spoke with, and any comments about the conversation.
- Confirm all conversations in writing, sending correspondence certified mail, return-receipt requested.
- Keep copies of all correspondence. When possible, send photocopies of statements or other information and retain the original documents.
- Note time spent and expenses incurred in clearing up the problems (e.g., save all receipts). You may be able to seek restitution for these costs.
There are excellent resources that provide more comprehensive, step-by-step lists of actions to take if you find you're a victim of identity fraud. The Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) Identity Theft web pages are particularly comprehensive: See www.ftc.gov/idtheft for more information.
Help Fighting ID Theft
Identity theft can be a traumatic experience, personally as well as financially. If you become a victim, be active in reaching out for help. One source of help may be your insurance provider. Certain auto or homeowner insurance policies offer one-on-one expert assistance to victims of identity theft. Your insurance provider may assist you with the paperwork, telephone calls, and other tasks required to restore your credit and regain control of your identity. Not only can they provide assistance if you have been victimized, they also offer a wealth of information on how to protect your identity and personal information. It will take some time and effort, but with persistence and the right tools and information, you can put your financial life and credit record back on track and regain your privacy.