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.
Identity theft is the theft or unauthorized use of another person's personal identifying information (e.g., name, driver's license number, bank account numbers) for fraudulent or unlawful activities. Identity thieves often use the stolen information to establish or take over financial accounts. But they may also use a fraudulent identity to commit a crime, enter a foreign country, or hide one's own identity. For this reason identity theft is sometimes called "identity fraud."
Four out of five victims of identity theft have no idea what led to the theft of their personal or confidential information. Yet with just a name, Social Security number, and birthdate it's possible to get loans, access existing bank accounts, or open new bank accounts. Many people carelessly discard papers that contain enough information for an identity thief to get started (e.g., old credit card bills, pay stubs). In fact, there are many ways for an identity thief to obtain personal information. Some of the more common ones include:
Computers/Internet: Credit card or other personal information sent over an unsecured Internet connection can easily be stolen.
"Dumpster Diving": Personal information often ends up in the trash at home, at work, or in dumpsters outside stores and businesses. Discarded information is an easy target for thieves.
"Pretexting": Thieves may call or e-mail potential victims posing as representatives of legitimate institutions to ask for personal or financial information, often under the pretense of "routine security checks."
Stolen mail: Credit card bills, financial account statements, tax notices in unsecured mail boxes can disappear without your knowledge.
Group identity theft: Places that keep records for many people, such as schools, hospitals or fitness centers, can be targets for sophisticated identity thieves.
Public records: Records that are open for public inspection include real estate records, vehicle information, driver's license information, and certain types of professional certifications and licensing information.
Identity scams can go on for years without your knowledge, leaving you with a damaged reputation and ruined credit. In extreme cases, innocent people have lost jobs or promotions, even ended up with criminal records. It can be a long and difficult process to repair the damage done if your identity is stolen. Do everything you can to prevent it.
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.
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.
If you're a victim of identity theft, take the following actions immediately:
Contact Banks and Creditors. As soon as you've learned of an unauthorized use of your identity, contact all your credit card issuers and banks where you have accounts.
- Close all accounts that have been used fraudulently.
- Ask for new account numbers for all other cards.
- Ask that the accounts you close be noted as "closed at customer request," rather than simply "card lost or stolen."
- Add or replace passwords to all accounts and monitor monthly statements closely, notifying the company of any unauthorized activity.
- Follow up all requests or conversations in writing.
Report the Crime to Your Local Police
Identity fraud is a federal crime. After making your report ask the law enforcement agency for a copy of the police report and/or the report number, and information on how to reach the investigator assigned to your case. This will help you in disputing fraudulent credit card charges and entries.
Contact a Credit Company
Immediately obtain your credit report from all three major credit companies — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. If you're a victim of identity fraud, federal law requires that each of the three credit report companies must, at your request, provide you with a free copy of your credit report. Ask any one of the three credit companies to flag your account - the other two will automatically be notified. Provide the credit company with a "victim's statement." A victim's statement is a very brief description of what has happened that will include your phone number so that all future transactions can be verified with you. The flagged alert will normally stay in place for 90 to 180 days, but it's advisable to extend the alert to seven years, which requires written notification from you.
Contact the Federal Trade Commission
The FTC runs the ID Theft Hotline and Data Clearinghouse and serves as an advocate for identity fraud victims. As soon as you suspect that your identity has been used fraudulently, contact the FTC Hotline toll free at 877-IDTHEFT (438-4338).
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.
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.
P.O. Box 2002
National Consumer Assistance
Allen, TX 75013
To report fraud: 888-397-3742, www.experian.com
P.O. Box 740241
Consumer Fraud Division
Atlanta, GA 30374
To report fraud: 888-766-0008, www.equifax.com
P.O. Box 6790
Fraud Victim Assistance Department
Fullerton, CA 92834
To report fraud: 800-680-7289, www.transunion.com
From Victim to Victor: A Step-by-Step Guide for Ending the Nightmare of Identity Theft by Mari J. Frank, Esq.
Published by Porpoise Press
Identity Theft: How to Protect Your Most Valuable Asset by Robert Hammond
Published by The Career Press
The quarterly Consumer Information Center Catalog lists more than 200 helpful federal government publications. Obtain a free copy by calling 1-888-8-PUEBLO, on the Internet at www.pueblo.gsa.gov or by writing:
Federal Citizen Information Center
Consumer Information Catalog
Pueblo, CO 81009
U.S. Federal Trade Commission
Follow this link to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) clearinghouse for identity theft/fraud. FTC Hotline: 877-IDTHEFT (438-4338)
Identity Theft Resource Center
Non-profit organization dedicated to helping victims of identity fraud; information, assistance, and resources.
Privacy Rights Clearinghouse
Non-profit consumer information and advocacy organization providing up-to-date information on privacy rights and identity theft resources.
Identity Theft Knowledge Center
MetLife and Identity Theft 911's educational website offering information about the latest identity theft scams and tips on protecting your identity.