Identity theft or identity fraud is the taking of the victim's identity to obtain credit / credit cards from banks and retailers, steal money from the victim's existing accounts, apply for loans, establish accounts with utility companies, rent an apartment, file for bankruptcy, or obtain a job using the victim's name without the victim even knowing about it for months or even years. Recently, criminals have been using the victim's identity to commit crimes ranging from traffic infractions to felonies.
How Your Identity Can Be Stolen
All that is needed is your social security number, your birth date, and other identifying information such as your address, phone number, and whatever else they can find out about you. With this information, and a false driver's license with their own picture, they can begin the crime. They apply in person for instant credit, or through the mail posing as you. They often provide an address of their own, claiming to have moved. Negligent credit grantors in their rush to issue credit do not verify information or addresses.
Where the Imposter Gets the Information
Imposters gather information in lots of places - your doctor, accountant, lawyer, dentist, school, place of work, health insurance carrier, and many other places. If a criminally-minded person is working at the office (or just visiting) and decides to use this information to assume your identity, you would not know it. Also, if this information is not disposed of with a shredder, a dumpster-diver could pick up the information and begin the crime against you. If you do not shred your confidential information, utility bills, credit card slips, and other documents, it is easy to dumpster dive your garbage. Much of your information is readily available on the Internet, at courts, and accessible from public documents. Additionally, if someone obtains your credit report illegally, they have all the information necessary to become you.
Identity Theft Prevention
The following are some simple tips that you can use to reduce your vulnerability to identity theft.
- Don't carry your Social Security card in your wallet or write it on your checks. Only give out your SSN when absolutely necessary.
- Protect your PIN. Never write a PIN on a credit / debit card or on a slip of paper kept in your wallet.
- Watch out for "shoulder surfers." Use your free hand to shield the keypad when using ATMs.
- Collect mail promptly. Ask the post office to put your mail on hold when you are away from home for more than a day or two.
- Pay attention to your billing cycles. If bills or financial statements are late, contact the sender.
- Keep your receipts. Ask for carbons and incorrect charge slips as well. Promptly compare receipts with account statements. Watch for unauthorized transactions.
- Tear up or shred unwanted receipts, credit offers, account statements, expired cards, etc., in order to prevent dumpster divers getting your personal information.
- Store personal information in a safe place at home and at work. Don't leave it lying around.
- Don't respond to unsolicited requests for personal information in the mail, over the phone, or online.
- Install firewalls and virus-detection software on your home computer.
- Check your credit report at least once a year. Check it more frequently if you suspect someone has gotten access to your account information.
If you suspect or become a victim of identity theft, follow these steps:
- Report it to your financial institution. Call the phone number on your account statement or on the back of your credit or debit card. Keep these contact numbers, as well as account numbers, where you can easily find them.
- Report the fraud to your local police immediately. Keep a copy of the police report, which will make it easier to prove your case to creditors and retailers.
- Contact the credit reporting bureaus and ask them to flag your account with a fraud alert, which asks merchants to not grant new credit without your approval.
- Equifax: 1.800.525.6285
- Experian: 1.888.397.3742
- Trans Union: 1.800.680.7289
- Contact the Social Security Administration fraud line at 1.800.269.0271.
- Remove your name from the telemarketer list by signing up at the National Do Not Call Registry web site or call 1.888.382.1222.
- Opt-out of credit card or insurance offers (either permanently or for 5 years) by going to the Opt Out Prescreen web site or by calling 1.888.567.8688.
- Stop direct mail and telemarketers by sending $1 to the Direct Marketing Association Consumer Assistance web site or writing to the Direct Marketing Association:
P.O. Box 282
Carmel, NY 10512
- Obtain an annual Credit Report from the three major credit reporting bureaus.