What Is Identity Theft?
Identity theft is the unlawful use of another person’s identification. Identity theft may take many forms. Common methods of identity theft include credit card or other financial institution fraud, phone or utility service theft, and the taking of government documents or benefits. However, thieves are finding new ways of using the identity of their victims every day. The tragic events of September 11 have helped financial institutions and federal regulators learn more about the ways in which terrorists and terrorist organizations finance their activities. Some of their methods included opening accounts and moving funds using false identities or stolen information about real account holders. One way in which you may help stop these activities and make our financial institutions safer is to protect your account information from thieves and unauthorized users.
How Does Identity Theft Occur?
Surprising to most people is that identity theft is actually a very easy crime to commit. In fact, over 1,400 people are victimized each day. That being the case, it is important for you to know how these thieves operate so you can protect your personal information.
At the heart of the crime is the thief obtaining information that most people would assume only the true owner of the information would know. Common examples are social security numbers, driver’s license numbers, financial institution account numbers, mother’s maiden names, and passports.
Thieves obtain this information in numerous ways. Some thieves will steal wallets, purses, and even mail. Others will listen and/or watch a person conduct personal business, such as talking on the telephone or getting cash from an automated teller machine. Thieves will also deceive or trick people into disclosing personal information through phone scams, via the mail, or on the Internet.
Very aggressive thieves will even obtain personal information by using a process referred to as “pretext calling.” Pretext calling occurs when an individual contacts an entity in possession of a customer’s personal information and cons the entity into releasing the information by acting as the customer or someone authorized to have the customer’s information.
Once a thief has possession of the information, the thief will apply for credit cards, loans, phone services, or just about any other service where economic gain can be realized without actual payment. When applying for credit cards, loans, or other services, thieves will often intentionally use incorrect addresses or complete change of address forms on existing accounts so that the victim will not be immediately aware of the crime.
How Does Identity Theft Affect Me?
Identity theft can cause its victims numerous problems. Most significantly, it can destroy the financial history you have worked so hard to obtain. Repairing your credit history can require significant time and money. You may not be able to stop a thief until thousands of dollars of debt have been attributed to you.
How Can I Protect Myself From Identity Theft?
The following are just some of the ways you can reduce the risk of identity theft:
- Keep your credit cards, debit cards, personal identification numbers (PINs) and other passwords, checks, social security cards, other cards or documents which bear your social security number, health insurance cards, driver’s license and number, and other personal information where they will be safe. When disposing of these items, do so by shredding.
- Keep your deposit and withdrawal slips, credit card purchase receipts, financial institution statements, credit card statements, utility bills, medical bills, insurance information, investment updates, and credit card solicitations where they will be safe. When disposing of them, do so by shredding.
- Don’t put your trash out until shortly before it will be picked up.
- Mail bill payments and other items that contain personal information at a U.S. Postal Service drop box rather than in your curb side mailbox. Don’t put any mail in your curb side mailbox until shortly before it will be picked up.
- Take your mail out of your curb side mailbox as soon as possible after it has been delivered. If you are traveling, have the U.S. Postal Service hold your mail or have someone you trust pick it up daily.
- Limit the information on your checks, and don’t carry around anymore cards than necessary.
- Don’t give any of your personal information in person, over the telephone, or over the Internet to anyone—unless you have a very good reason to trust them.
- Don’t give any of your personal information in response to an unsolicited e-mail claiming to be from your financial institution or some other highly credible source. This is a technique referred to as “phishing.” Be sure to validate the request before providing the information (for example, contact the customer service telephone number on your account statement to ask about the request).
- Don’t give any of your personal information to any web sites that do not use encryption or other secure methods to protect it.
- Use a firewall if you have a high-speed Internet connection. This software can be purchased on-line or from most software retailers.
- Don’t use PINs or passwords that are easy to guess (for example, don’t use birth dates or spouse, child, or pet names).
- Examine your credit card and financial institution statements immediately upon receipt to determine whether there were any unauthorized transactions. Report any that you find immediately to the financial institution.
- Make a prompt inquiry if bills or statements are not received in a timely fashion—this could mean that they are being diverted by an identity thief.
- Obtain copies of your credit report annually from each of the three major credit reporting agencies (Equifax®, 1-800-685-1111; Experian®, 1-888-397-3742; TransUnion®, 1-800-888-4213) to be sure that they are accurate.
You may also wish to do the following
- Request not to receive any further preapproved offers of credit by calling 1-888-5-OPT-OUT.
- Ask to be removed from national direct mail lists by writing to the DMA Mail Preference Service, P.O. Box 643, Carmel, NY 10512, or going online to www.thedma.org/consumers/offmailinglist.html. Include your name and address.
- Register with the National Do Not Call Registry by calling 1-888-382-1222 or going online at www.donotcall.gov.
What Should I Do If My Identity Has Been Stolen?
In the event that you suspect your identity has been stolen or you are, in fact, certain that it has been stolen, follow these simple steps:
1) Contact the fraud department of at least one of the following three major credit reporting agencies and ask that a fraud alert be placed in your credit file and for a free credit report (to be on the safe side you may wish to contact all three):
- Equifax®—1-800-525-6285; P.O. Box 740241, Atlanta, GA 30374-0241
- Experian®—1-888-EXPERIAN (397-3742); P.O. Box 9532, Allen, TX 75013
- TransUnion®—1-800-680-7289; Fraud Victim Assistance Division, P.O. Box 6790, Fullerton, CA 92834-6790.
2) Close all accounts that are or may be affected by the identity theft. Also, regarding any checking accounts thus closed, contact the following major check verification companies and ask that retailers using their databases not accept checks drawn on the closed accounts:
- TeleCheck®—1-800-710-9898 or 927-0188
- Certegy, Inc.—1-800-437-5120
- International Check Services®— 1-800-631-9656
3) File a police report and obtain a copy for submission to credit reporting agencies, creditors, and others.
4) Contact the Federal Trade Commission to report the theft and obtain further guidance as to how to protect yourself:
- 1-877-IDTHEFT (438-4338)
- Identity Theft Clearinghouse, Federal Trade Commission, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20580.
5) If you know or suspect that your mail has been stolen, contact the United States Postal Service.
6) Keep detailed records of any theft of your identity and of your efforts to resolve the same.
- Log the date, time, and amount of any unauthorized activity on your accounts.
- Log the date, time, duration, and cost of any phone calls.
- Log the date and cost of any mailings and keep copies.