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.
How does identity theft occur?
Surprising to most people is that identity theft is actually a very easy crime to commit. In fact, thousands of 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 to 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 (Online Banking passwords) and other passwords, checks, social security card, 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 daily.
- 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 (for example, don't include driver's license number, social security number, or address), and don't carry around any more 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 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 Online Banking passwords or other 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 periodically from each of the three major reporting agencies (identified below) to be sure that they are accurate.
What should I do if it happens to me?
Identity theft is a serious and growing problem. If someone has fraudulently used your identification to establish credit, report the incident as quickly as possible to each of the credit reporting agencies listed below and ask that a fraud alert be placed on your file. You may also check to see if any additional credit accounts have been opened without your consent or whether unauthorized charges were billed to your accounts.
Experian 888-397-3742 or www.experian.com
Equifax 800-525-6285 or www.equifax.com
Trans Union 800-680-7289 or www.transunion.com
Also, do the following as soon as possible. Contact the Federal Trade Commission at www.consumer.gov/idtheft or 877-IDTHEFT. Cancel all accounts that have had fraudulent activity or are at risk. Contact your local law enforcement agency. Keep detailed records of any theft of your identity and of your records to resolve it.
For more information on how to protect yourself and on how to respond to identity theft, click here to visit the visit the Identity Theft Prevention section of our Online Education Center.