You may have heard about it in the news…it may have happened to someone you know, or it may have even happened to you. Identity theft is one of fastest-growing crimes in the United States, spawning an estimated 500,000 to 700,000 new cases a year. Identity theft occurs when someone steals pieces of your personal information and uses them without your knowledge to commit fraud or theft. How do they obtain your information?
• They steal your purse or wallet.
• They take mail out of your mailbox.
• They “dumpster dive,” rummaging through trash to find old bills and other personal information.
• They use “skimming” techniques, stealing your credit or debit account numbers with special storage devices when processing your card.
• They divert mail with a change of address form.
• They scam information from you by posing as a legitimate businessperson or government official.
Once identity thieves illegally obtain your information, what do they do with it?
• They open new accounts and apply for new lines of credit, making charges while leaving the bills unpaid. This is the most common form of identity theft.
• They establish utility and telephone services in your name.
• They access existing accounts to make fraudulent charges or withdrawals on credit or debit cards.
• They open bank accounts to write bad checks.
Consequences of identity theft can be staggering. Victims can spend enormous amounts of time and money trying to clear their good names. Although you cannot prevent identity theft entirely, you can minimize the risk. How do you protect yourself?
• Don’t carry you social security card around with you.
• Carry only the debit and credit cards and identification you’ll need for a particular excursion.
• Shred credit card statements and other papers with personal or account information.
• Guard your mail. Deposit outgoing mail in post office collection boxes rather than your unsecured mailbox, and remove mail from your mailbox promptly.
• Don’t give any information over the phone from an unsolicited phone call.
• Place passwords on your accounts and update you computer with firewalls and virus protection.
But protecting yourself is sometimes not enough—if you suspect you’ve had your identity stolen, you need to act immediately. What steps do you take if you’re a victim of identify theft?
• Review your credit reports, and place a fraud alert on your credit reports by calling a credit bureau’s toll-free fraud hotline [Equifax (800) 525-6585, Experian (800) 397-3742, TransUnion (800) 680-7289]. Fraud alerts can prevent additional new accounts from being opened in your name.
• Close all accounts that have been compromised or opened deceptively. If there are fraudulent charges, contact that creditor so they can send you their fraud dispute forms.
• File a police report with local police in the area where the identity theft took place. A police report will be needed to corroborate your claim.
• File a compliant with the FTC by calling (877) 438-4338.
To learn more about identity theft, how to protect yourself, and how to fight back if you’re a victim, visit www.consumer.gov/idtheft. IBI