How Identity Theft Happens
Criminals can easily obtain your personal data without going to the trouble of entering your home:
- - They steal wallets and purses containing your identification, credit cards and bankcards.
- - They steal your mail, especially bank and credit card statements, pre-approved credit offers, new checks, and tax information.
- - They complete a “change of address form” to divert your mail to another location.
- - They go “dumpster diving”, rummaging through your trash, or the trash of businesses, for copies of records that typically bear your name, address, telephone number, and even your birth date and social security number.
- - They obtain your credit report by posing as a landlord, employer, or someone who may have a legitimate need for, and legal right to, the information.
- - In public places, they "shoulder surf", watching from a nearby location as you punch in your telephone calling card number or credit card number.
- - They use personal information you share on the Internet.
- - They scam you, often through email, or they go "phishing" by posing as legitimate companies or government agencies you do business with.
- - They get your information from your workplace by stealing files from offices where you’re a customer, employee, patient or student; by bribing an employee who has access to your files; or by “hacking” into electronic files.
With enough identifying information, a criminal can take over an individual's identity for a wide range of crimes, including false applications for loans and credit cards, fraudulent withdrawals from bank accounts, fraudulent use of telephone calling cards, and fraudulently obtaining goods or privileges. If the criminal has the bills for all these activities sent to another address, the victim may not become aware of what is happening until substantial damages have occurred, both to the victim's assets and to his/her reputation.
How to Reduce Your Risk for Identity Theft
Order a copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus at least once a year to personally check for mistakes and fraud before they become a problem.
Don't underestimate the importance of this step. One of the most common ways that consumers find out that they're victims of identity theft is when they try to make a major purchase, like a house or a car. The deal can be lost or delayed while the credit report mess is straightened out.
Place strong passwords on your credit card, bank and phone accounts. Avoid using easily available information like your mother's maiden name, your birth date, the last four digits of your SSN or your phone number, or a series of consecutive numbers. Change passwords often.
Secure personal information in your home and at work, especially if you have roommates, employ outside help, or are having service work done in your home.
- Keep your purse or wallet in a safe place
- Carry only the identification information and the number of credit and debit cards that you actually need.
- Keep other credit cards and personal information in a safe place at home
Don't carry your Social Security card with you; leave it in a secure place.
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.
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 with whom you're dealing.
- Be wary of promotional offers. Identity thieves may use phony offers to get you to give them your personal information.
- Before you share any personal information, confirm that you are dealing with a legitimate organization. You can check the organization's Web site as many companies post scam alerts when their name is used improperly, or you can call the company's customer service using the number listed on your account statement or in the telephone book.
- 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 and keeping it confidential. When opening new accounts, many businesses still ask for your mother's maiden name. Use a password instead.
Give your SSN only when absolutely necessary. Ask to use other types of identifiers when possible. If your state uses your SSN as your driver's license number, ask to substitute another number.
Guard your mail and trash from theft
- - Place your outgoing mail in secure post office collection boxes or at your local post office, rather than in an unsecured mailbox. 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, or go on-line (www.usps.com -- click on Receive Mail and Packages) to request a vacation hold. The Postal Service will hold your mail at your local post office until you are home to receive it or can pick it up.
- - Pay attention to your billing cycles. Follow up with businesses and (especially) creditors if your bills don't arrive on time. A missing credit card bill could mean an identity thief has taken over your account and changed your billing address to cover his tracks.
- - Tear or shred all charge receipts, copies of credit applications, insurance forms, physician statements, checks and bank statements, and credit offers you get in the mail.
- - Cut up expired charge cards that you're discarding.
Keep your computer and your stored personal information safe
- - Update your virus protection software regularly
- - Do not download files, especially application and "zip" files, sent to you by anyone, unless it's a file you're specifically expecting. Do not click on hyperlinks from people you don't know
- - Use a firewall program, especially if you use a high-speed Internet connection like cable, DSL or T-1, which leaves your computer connected to the Internet 24 hours a day.
- - Use a secure browser - software that encrypts or scrambles information you send over the Internet - to guard the security of your online transactions.
- - Try not to store financial information on your laptop unless absolutely necessary. If you do, use a strong password - a combination of letters (upper and lowers case), numbers and symbols. Change the password often.
- - Don't use an automatic log-in feature which saves your user name and password so you don't have to enter them each time you log-in or enter a site. And always log off when you're finished.
- - Before you dispose of a computer, delete personal information. Use a "wipe" utility program to overwrite the entire hard drive. It makes the files unrecoverable. For more information, see Clearing Information From Your Computer's Hard Drive (www.hq.nasa.gov/office/oig/hq/harddrive.pdf) from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
What To Do If You're a Victim, or Think You May Be a Victim
According to the Federal Trade Commission, identity theft complaints are broken down as follows:
- About 50% reported that a credit card was opened in their name
- 25% reported that the thief established new telephone, cellular, or another service in their name
- 16% reported that a bank account was opened in their name, or unauthorized withdrawals had been made from their account
- 9% reported that the thief obtained a loan in their name
- 8% reported that the thief obtained a fraudulent document such as a driver's license
If you suspect that your personal information has been hijacked and misappropriated to commit fraud or theft, take action immediately, and keep a record of your conversations and correspondence.
Recommendations from the Federal Trade Commission Website
If you suspect that someone has used your name, Social Security number, or other personal information to get credit or a loan, the following steps can help.
Keep a record. Because recovering from identity theft can be a long and complicated process, it's important to keep a record of all communications. Send all letters by certified mail and keep copies. If you think your case might lead to a lawsuit, keep track of how much time you spend dealing with the problem.
Call the police. Report the crime to the police or sheriff's department that has jurisdiction in your case and request a police report. Though the authorities are often unable to help, a report may be necessary to help convince creditors that someone else has opened an account in your name.
Contact the Federal Trade Commission. Call the FTC's identity theft hotline at 877/438-4338 and file a complaint. The FTC does not resolve individual consumer problems itself, but your complaint may lead to law enforcement action.
Check your credit report. Get your credit report and check for any new accounts opened in your name. Because new accounts may take up to six months to show up on the report, continue to monitor your credit report.
Contact the Three Credit Reporting Agencies. Have them put a fraud alert on your file, which will aid in preventing new credit accounts from being opened without your express permission. Below is contact information for each credit reporting agency's fraud division:
Freeze fraudulent accounts. Contact the appropriate creditors, banks, phone companies, and utility companies and have them freeze the accounts. You'll probably be liable for only $50 of the fraudulent charges, but different issuers have different policies. Most creditors promptly issue replacement cards with new account numbers.
You may also need to contact one or more of the following government bodies, each of which will inform you of the necessary procedures.
- Mail fraud
If you suspect that someone has changed your address with the post office or used the mail to commit identity theft, notify the US Postal Inspector
- Fraud using your Social Security number
If your Social Security number has been used to commit identity theft, call the Social Security Administration at 800/772-1213. You can order a copy of your earnings and benefits statement to check whether someone has used your Social Security number to get a job or to avoid paying taxes.
- Fraud involving your driver's license number
If your driver's license number has been used to open accounts or verify checks, contact your state's Department of Motor Vehicles.
- Fraud involving your passport
Notify the Passport Services Department, U.S. State Department, of the identity theft so that it can intercept anyone ordering a new passport in your name. New Telephone Number: 1-877-4USA-PPT (1-877-487-2778)
- Fraud involving a business scam
If the fraud was perpetrated as part of a business scam, contact the National Fraud Information Center at 800/876-7060.
- Bankruptcy filed using your name
If someone filed for bankruptcy using your name, write to the U.S. Trustee in the region where the bankruptcy was filed. A listing of the U.S. Trustee Program's Regions can be found at www.usdoj.gov/ust, or look in the blue pages of your phone book under US Government: Bankruptcy Administration. Your letter should describe the situation and provide proof of your identity
- Mail fraud
Important Contact Information
There are a number of helpful services to help you respond if you have been a victim of identity theft. Below is a list of resources that we have compiled on your behalf.
Federal Trade Commission's Identity Theft Hotline
877/ID-THEFT www.ftc.gov or http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/menus/consumer/data/idt.shtm
Social Security Administration's Fraud Hotline
Equifax Fraud Division www.equifax.com
P.O. Box 740250
Atlanta, GA 30374
Experian Fraud Division www.experian.com
P.O. Box 1017
Allen, TX 75013
Trans Union Fraud Division www.transunion.com
P.O. Box 6790
Fullerton, CA 92634