Incidents of identity theft make it into the news on a regular basis. But, exactly what is identity theft? Identity theft occurs when someone uses your personal information, such as your name, Social Security number, driver's license number, or credit card number, without your permission in order to commit fraud or other crimes.
Protecting Yourself from Identity Thieves
There are steps you can take that will help lower your risk of becoming a victim of identity theft.
- Protect your Social Security number. Don’t carry your Social Security card or other cards that show your Social Security Number.
- Use caution when giving out your personal information. Scam artists "phish" for victims by pretending to be banks, stores, charities or government agencies. They do this over the phone, in e-mails and in regular mail.
- Think about what’s going in your trash. Shred or destroy papers containing your personal information including credit card offers and convenience checks that you don’t use.
- Protect your mail. Retrieve it promptly. Discontinue delivery while out of town.
- Check your bills and bank statements. Open your credit card bills and bank statements right away. Check carefully for any unauthorized charges or withdrawals, and report them immediately. Call if bills don’t arrive on time. It may mean that someone has changed contact information to hide fraudulent charges.
- Check your credit reports. Review your credit report at least once a year. Check for changed addresses and fraudulent charges.
- Stop pre-approved credit offers. Pre-approved credit card offers are a target for identity thieves who steal your mail. Have your name removed from credit bureau marketing lists. Call toll-free 888-5OPTOUT (888-567-8688).
- Ask questions whenever you are asked for personal information that seems inappropriate for the transaction. Ask how the information will be used and if it will be shared. Ask how it will be protected. If you’re not satisfied with the answers, don’t give your personal information.
Protect your computer. Protect personal information on your computer by following good security practices.
- Use strong, non-easily guessed passwords.
- Use firewall, anti-virus, and anti-spyware software that you update regularly.
- Download software only from sites you know and trust and only after reading all the terms and conditions.
- Don’t click on links in pop-up windows or in SPAM e-mail.
What to do if your Personal Information becomes Compromised or is Stolen
If you have reason to believe your personal information has been compromised or stolen, contact the Fraud Department of one of the three major credit bureaus listed below.
When contacting the credit reporting agencies, you should request the following:
- Instruct them to flag your file with a fraud alert including a statement that creditors should get your permission before opening any new accounts in your name.
- Ask them for copies of your credit report(s). (Credit bureaus must give you a free copy of your report if it is inaccurate because of suspected fraud.) 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.
Follow up on your accounts. In the months following an incident, order new copies of your reports to verify your corrections and changes and to make sure no new fraudulent activity has occurred. If you find that any accounts have been tampered with or opened fraudulently:
- Close them immediately.
- For charges and debits on existing accounts, ask the representative to send you the company's fraud dispute forms. If the company doesn't have such forms, outline your dispute in a letter. The Federal Trade Commission provides a sample letter on its web site. All correspondence should be mailed to the company’s billing inquiries address, not the address to which you send your payments.
For new unauthorized accounts, you can either file a dispute directly with the company or file a report with the police and provide a copy, called an “identity theft report,” to the company.
- If want to file a dispute directly with the company and do not want to file a report with police, ask the company if it accepts the FTC’s ID Theft Affidavit. If it does not, ask the representative to send you the company’s fraud dispute forms.
- Filing a report with the police and then providing the company with an identity theft report will give you greater protection. For example, if the company has already reported these unauthorized accounts or debts on your credit report, an Identity Theft Report will require them to stop reporting that fraudulent information. Visit the Federal Trade Commission’s web site for more information on identity theft reports.
- Report identity theft to your local police department.
- File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission by using the online complaint form; by calling the FTC’s Identity Theft Hotline at 1-877-ID-THEFT (1-877-438-4338); or by writing to the Identity Theft Clearinghouse, Federal Trade Commission, 600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington, D.C. 20580.
Once you have resolved your identity theft dispute with the company, ask for a letter stating that the company has closed the disputed accounts and has discharged the fraudulent debts. This letter is your best proof if errors relating to this account reappear on your credit report or you are contacted again about the fraudulent debt.
Identity Theft Resources
Social Security Administration (SSA)
If you are the victim of a stolen Social Security number, the SSA can provide information on how to report the fraudulent activity and on how to correct your earnings record. Phone: 800-772-1213
Federal Trade Commission
ID Theft Clearinghouse: 1-877-ID-THEFT (1-877-438-4338)
Local Law Enforcement
It is important that you report identity theft to your local police department as soon as you become aware that you are a victim. Get a copy of the police report which will assist you when notifying creditors, credit reporting agencies and if necessary, the Social Security Administration (SSA).