What is Identity Theft?
Identity theft occurs when someone acquires your personal information and uses it without your knowledge to commit fraud or theft. It is a serious crime and cases are growing. An all-too-common example is when an identity thief uses your personal information to open a credit card account in your name.
No matter how cautious you are, there is no way to completely prevent identity theft from occurring. But there are ways you can help minimize your risk. This page contains valuable information on how you can protect yourself by managing your personal information wisely, the warning signs of identity theft, and what to do if you do become a victim.
- Don't give out personal information on the phone, through the mail or over the Internet unless you've initiated the contact or are sure you know whom you're dealing with.
- Don't carry your Social Security card with you; leave it in a secure place. Carry only the identification and credit and debit cards that you need.
- Don't put your address, phone number, or driver’s license number on credit card sales receipts.
- Social Security numbers or phone numbers should not be put on your checks.
- Shred your charge receipts, copies of credit applications, insurance forms, physician statements, checks and bank statements, expired charge cards that you're discarding, and credit offers you get in the mail.
- Secure your credit card, bank, and phone accounts with passwords. Avoid using easily available information like birth date, the last four digits of your Social Security Number, or your phone number. When opening new accounts, you may find that many businesses still have a line on their applications for your mother's maiden name. Use a password instead.
- Secure personal information in your home, particularly if you have roommates or hire outside help.
- Promptly remove mail from your mailbox. If you're planning to be away from home and can't pick up your mail, call the U.S. Postal Service at 1-800-275-8777 to request a vacation hold.
- Ask about information security procedures in your workplace. Find out who has access to your personal information and verify that records are kept in a secure location. Ask about the disposal procedures for those records as well.
- Before revealing any personally identifying information (for example, on an application), find out how it will be used and secured, and whether it will be shared with others. Ask if you have a choice about the use of your information. Can you choose to have it kept confidential?
Check your credit report
Order a copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit-reporting agencies every year. Make sure it is accurate and includes only those activities you have authorized.
By checking your report on a regular basis you can catch mistakes and fraud before they wreak havoc on your personal finances. Don't underestimate the importance of this step.
Equifax – www.equifax.com
To order your report, call: 1-800-685-1111
To report fraud, call: 1-800-525-6285
Experian - www.experian.com
To order your credit report or report fraud, call: 1-888-EXPERIAN (397-3742)
TransUnion - www.transunion.com
To order your report, call: 800-916-8800
To report fraud, call: 1-800-680-7289
Although there may be no warning signs that precede an identity theft, there are some reasons to be concerned. These include:
- Your bills or statements don’t arrive on time. A missing credit card bill could mean someone has taken over your account and changed your billing address.
- You are denied credit for no apparent reason.
- You begin to receive bills from companies where you haven’t bought anything.
- Collection agencies begin trying to collect on debts you don’t recognize.
If You Do Become a Victim
Sometimes an identity thief can strike even if you've been very careful about keeping your personal information to yourself. If you suspect that your personal information has been hijacked and misappropriated to commit fraud or theft, take action immediately. Keep a record of your conversations and correspondence.
Exactly which steps you should take to protect yourself depends on your circumstances and how your identity has been misused. However, three basic actions are appropriate in almost every case.
Contact the Fraud Departments of Each of the Three Major Credit Bureaus.
You should request that a "fraud alert" be placed in your file, as well as a victim's statement asking that creditors call you before opening any new accounts or changing your existing accounts. This can help prevent an identity thief from opening additional accounts in your name.
At the same time, order copies of your credit reports from the credit bureaus. Credit bureaus must give you a free copy of your report if your report is inaccurate because of fraud, and you request it in writing. Review your reports carefully to make sure no additional fraudulent accounts have been opened in your name or unauthorized changes made to your existing accounts. Also, check the section of your report that lists "inquiries". Where "inquiries" appear from the company(ies) that opened the fraudulent account(s), request that these "inquiries" be removed from your report.
Please note: Fraud alerts and victim statements are voluntary services provided by the credit bureaus. Creditors do not have to consider them when granting credit. That's why it's vital to continue checking your reports periodically. In addition, fraud alerts and victim statements expire; you need to renew them periodically. Ask each bureau about its policy.
Close All Accounts that You Know or Believe Have Been Tampered With or Opened Fraudulently.
Notify all creditors and financial institutions, in writing and by phone, that your name and accounts have been used without your permission. If an existing account has been stolen, ask the creditor or bank to issue you new cards, checks, and account numbers. Carefully monitor the account activity and report any suspicious activity to the issuing company immediately.
File a Police Report.
Provide as much documentation as you can such as debt collection letters, credit reports, and other evidence of fraudulent activity. This information will help the police file a complete report.
Be persistent. Stress the importance of a police report, as many creditors require one to resolve your dispute. Plus, credit bureaus will automatically block the fraudulent accounts and bad debts from appearing on your credit report, but only if you can give them a copy of the police report. If you can't get the local police to take a report, try your county police. If that doesn’t work, try your state police.
Federal Law Enforcement
Also report the crime to the following federal law enforcement agencies.
Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
The FTC is collecting identity theft complaints from consumers to help law enforcement agencies worldwide.
Federal Trade Commission
Consumer Response Center
600 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W.
Washington, DC 20580
or Call 877-IDTHEFT
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
The FBI investigates cases of identity theft and recognizes that identity theft is a component of many crimes. These include bank fraud, mail fraud, wire fraud, bankruptcy fraud, insurance fraud, fraud against the government, and terrorism. Local offices are listed in the Blue Pages of your telephone directory.
U.S. Secret Service (USSS)
The U.S. Secret Service investigates financial crimes, including identity theft. The Secret Service typically investigates cases involving larger dollar amounts, but regardless of your loss, the information may provide evidence of a larger pattern of fraud requiring their involvement. Local offices are listed in the Blue Pages of your telephone directory.