Identity theft is the fastest-growing crime in America, affecting half a million new victims each year. Identity theft or identity fraud is the taking of a victim's identity to obtain credit, credit cards from banks and retailers, steal money from a victim's existing accounts, apply for loans, establish accounts with utility companies, rent an apartment, file bankruptcy, or obtain a job using the victim's name. Thousands of dollars can be stolen without the victim knowing about it for months or even years.
The imposter obtains your social security number, your birth date, and other identifying information such as your address and phone number. With this information and a fake driver's license they can apply in person for instant credit or through the mail posing as you. They often claim they have moved and provide their own address. Once the first account it opened, they can continue to add to their credibility. They get the information from your doctor, lawyer, school, health insurance carrier, and may other places. "Dumpster divers" pick up information you may have thrown away, such as utility bills, credit card slips, and other documents. To Prevent This From Happening To You:
- Do not give out personal information over the phone, through the mail, or over the Internet unless you have initiated the contact or know whom you're dealing with. Identity thieves will pose as bank representatives, Internet service providers, and even government officials to get you to reveal identifying information.
- Shred all documents, including pre-approved credit applications received in your name, insurance forms, bank checks and statements you are discarding, and other financial information.
- Do not use your mother's maiden name, your birth date, the last four digits of your social security number, or a similar series of numbers as a password for anything.
- Minimize the identification information and the number of cards you carry. Take what you'll actually need. Don't carry your social security card, birth certificate, or passport, unless necessary.
- Do not put your social security number on your checks or your credit receipts. If a business requests your social security number, give them an alternate number and explain why. If a government agency requests your social security number, there must be a privacy notice accompanying the request.
- Do not put your telephone number on checks.
- Be careful using ATMs and phone cards. Someone may look over your shoulder and get your PIN numbers, thereby gaining access to your accounts.
- Make a list of all you credit card account numbers and bank account numbers with customer service phone numbers and keep it in a safe place.
- When you order new credit cards in the mail or previous ones have expired, watch the calendar to make sure you get the card within the appropriate time. If the card is not received within that time, call the credit card grantor immediately to find out if the card has been sent. If you don't receive the card, check to make sure a change of address was not filed.
- Do not put your credit card number on the Internet unless it is encrypted on a secure site.
- Pay attention to your billing cycles. Follow up with creditors if bills don't arrive on time. A missing credit card bill could mean an identity thief has taken over your credit card account and changed your billing address.
- Cancel all credit cards that you have not used in the last six months. Open credit is a prime target.
IF YOU'RE 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, and keep a record of your conversations and correspondence.
Your First Three Steps
First: contact the fraud departments of each of the three major credit bureaus. Tell them that you're an identity theft victim. 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. (See "Credit Reports" for more information.) In a ew months, order new copies of your reports to verify your corrections and changes, and to make sure no new fraudulent activity has occurred.
Second: contact the creditors for any accounts that have been tampered with or opened fraudulently. Creditors can include credit card companies, phone companies and other utilities, and banks and other lenders. Ask to speak with someone in the security or fraud department of each creditor, and follow up with a letter. It's particularly important to notify credit card companies in writing because that's the consumer protection procedure the law spells out for resolving errors on credit card billing statements. Immediately close accounts that have been tampered with and open new ones with new Personal Identification Numbers (PINs) and passwords. Here again, 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.
Third: file a report with your local police or the police in the community where the identity theft took place. Get a copy of the police report in case the bank, credit card company or others need proof of the crime. Even if the police can't catch the identity thief in your case, having a copy of the police report can help you when dealing with creditors.