Identity theft: The unauthorized possession of one's personal identification and information and the use of this information to fraudulently conduct business and other affairs including obtaining credit or funds. During 2004, 9.3 million American adults became victims of identity theft, according to the Better Business Bureau.
Identity thieves will open new accounts in other people's names and rack up debts on existing accounts. To do this, these thieves may use consumers' Social Security numbers, bank account information, addresses, or phone numbers. Some consumers have been denied jobs or insurance or have been arrested for crimes they did not commit--all because their identity was stolen.
How Your Identity Can Be Stolen
Identity thieves use a variety of methods to gain access to your personal information, including:
- Stealing your wallet or purse containing your identification, credit, and bank cards.
- Stealing your mail, including your bank and credit card statements, pre-approved credit offers, and tax information. Also stealing your garbage and looking for discarded information.
- Fraudulently obtaining your credit report by posing as a landlord or employer.
- Buying your personal information from "inside" sources. For example, an identity thief may pay a store, restaurant, or hotel employee for information about you.
- Taking information about you from the Web.
Preventing Identity Theft
While we cannot prevent identity theft entirely, the Better Business Bureau, along with many other financial institutions have some tips to minimize our risks:
- Before revealing any personal information, find out how it will be used and whether it will be shared with others.
- Pay attention to your billing cycles. Contact your creditors immediately if your bill does not show up on time.
- Minimize the number of credit cards you carry; only carry the ones you need.
- Guard your mail from theft. Deposit outgoing mail in post office collection boxes or at your local post office.
- Keep items with personal information in a safe place. Shred or tear up your charge receipts, copies of credit applications, insurance forms, bank checks, and statements that you are discarding, expired charge cards, and credit offers you get in the mail.
- Do not carry your Social Security card; leave it in a secure place. Give out your Social Security number only when absolutely necessary. Ask to use other forms of identification when possible.
- Order a copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus at least once a year. Review the reports to make sure they are accurate and include only the activities you have authorized.
- Do not be a victim of phishing, which occurs when thieves send emails that look as if they come from legitimate companies requesting certain personal information. Never provide personal information such as Social Security, credit card, and bank account numbers or user names and passwords to these emails. Be very suspicious of emails that were sent to you unsolicited.
- If you are shopping online, make sure the website is secure. Sites that have technology to secure transactions will have "https" instead of "http" in their web address on the page that asks for credit information. Another way to tell if the site is secure is if you see an icon of a locked padlock, which is usually at the bottom of the screen.
- Write "check photo ID" in ink on the back of your credit cards near your signature. This will alert the store clerk to check the credit card against your photo identification.
- If you still use your Social Security number as your driver's license number, get it changed to a generic number.
- Be careful to protect yourself while shopping in malls and stores. Do not leave purses or wallets unattended or in easy places on your person to pick. Watch for people standing nearby with a cell phone with a camera. With camera cell phones available now, someone can easily take a clear picture of the information on your credit card. Block your ATM transactions with your body so no one can see your PIN number.
- Immediately open your credit card statements and check for unfamiliar purchases. Keep your credit card receipts in one place and cross check them against your monthly statement. Shred the statement and receipts when you are through with them.
- Do not give out information to companies that should already have that information. For example, your bank should never call you asking for your checking account number. They have that information.
- Commit all passwords and personal identification numbers to memory. Be creative when you select a password.
Dealing With Identity Theft
1. If you feel that there is a chance that your credit or bank accounts may be compromised, contact all three major credit bureaus.
Request that they each place a fraud alert and a victim's statement in your file. A fraud alert is supposed to result in creditors contacting you before opening any new accounts or making any changes to your existing accounts.
Request a FREE copy of your credit report to check whether any accounts were opened without your consent.
Request that each remove inquiries and/or fraudulent accounts stemming from the theft.
2. Close your bank accounts, but notify the bank that your account numbers have been compromised and that you would like a new account. If you have any problems doing this, change banks.
If checks were stolen, place stop payments on them.
If bank accounts were set up without your consent, close them.
If your ATM card was stolen, request a new card, account number, and PIN number.
3. Notify the issuers of the credit cards you carry. If unauthorized charges appear on your legitimate credit cards or if unauthorized cards have been issued in your name, request replacement cards with new account numbers. Request that the unauthorized cards be closed.
Monitor credit card bills for new fraudulent activity. If found, report it immediately to the credit card issuers and credit reporting agencies.
4. Check with any online accounts, merchants, or payment services that you use for any fraudulent activity against your account.
5. Contact your local police department to file a criminal report. Get a copy of the report to submit to your creditors.
6. File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC keeps records of identity theft cases used by law enforcement for investigations.
7. Contact the Social Security Administration's Fraud Hotline to report the unauthorized use of your personal identification information. Hotline: 800.269.0271
8. Notify the Department of Motor Vehicles of your identity theft. Check to see whether an unauthorized license number has been issued in your name.
9. Be sure to document the names and phone numbers of everyone you speak to regarding the incident. Follow up your phone calls with letters. Keep copies of all correspondence.
Review the steps to prevent identity theft to avoid any additional problems in the future.
Better Business Bureau/BBBOnline
4200 Wilson Blvd.
Arlington, VA 22203
The Federal Trade Commission
Identity Theft Resource Center
National Consumer League's National Fraud Information Center
Fraud hotline: 800.876.7060
Privacy Rights Clearinghouse
Consumer Federation of America
Scamicide.com: Website about identify theft and fraud