Identity theft is a crime that is a serious issue in this country. Identity theft occurs when a thief uses your name, address, Social Security number or account information without your knowledge to commit fraud or other crimes.
Victims of identity theft can spend vast amounts of time and money trying to clean up the damage that thieves have done to their credit record and good name. Job opportunities can be lost if a potential employer notes a poor credit record, unaware that the record may contain fraudulent information. Loans can be turned down, leading to problems purchasing a house, a car or even a hotel room. Worst of all, victims can even be arrested for crimes committed by someone using their name.
How Can Someone Steal Your Identity?
Identity thieves use a variety of both high-tech and low-tech methods to gain personal information on their victims.
- From Businesses: Thieves sometimes work for a company with access to personal information and may attempt to steal it. Thieves bribe other employees to steal or hack into a computer that houses personal information.
- From Credit Reporting Agencies: Thieves may pose as an employer, a landlord or a business to attempt to gain access to your information. They pretend to have a legitimate need for the information.
- From Places You Do Business: Thieves may attempt to use an old receipt to gain access to your credit card information. Or, they may use a special device to “skim” your credit card when it is being processed at a place where you do business.
- From Your Home, Car or Person: Thieves may attempt to steal your wallet, mail or personal documents from your home. Another concern is the information on your computer.
- On Their Own: Thieves sometimes attempt to complete a change of address form to have statements, invoices or other information mailed to an alternate address. This provides them with easier access.
- Directly From You Through Fraud: Thieves may pose as a legitimate business interest, and try to convince you to give them personal information. Then they can use the information to commit fraud.
What Can Identity Thieves Do with Your Personal Information?
Once identity thieves gain access to your information, they can make your life miserable in many ways, including:
- Use your credit cards for spending sprees;
- Open new credit card accounts in your name, spend the maximum and never pay the bill, leaving the wreckage for you to deal with when it appears on your credit report;
- Establish phone or cell phone accounts in your name without your knowledge;
- Use checks, counterfeit checks, check cards or debit cards to deplete your checking and/or savings accounts;
- Obtain loans in your name;
- File for bankruptcy under your name to avoid debts they have incurred, and/or
- Give your name to the police during an arrest and not appear in court; thereby, leading to a warrant for your arrest.
How Can I Minimize the Risk of Being a Victim of Identity Theft?
As with any other crime, it is virtually impossible to completely eliminate all possibilities of becoming a victim of identity theft. However, steps can be taken to help minimize your risk:
- Check your credit report regularly. These are available from any of the credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian or TransUnion). These three nationwide consumer credit reporting agencies are sponsoring a website where you can receive a credit report from all three bureaus for free, once every 12 months. The website is www.annualcreditreport.com. If you see anything suspicious on your history, report it immediately to the credit bureau.
- Unless you have initiated the contact or you are certain who is calling you, do not give personal information over the phone. Thieves may try to gather information from you such as account numbers, your mother’s maiden name or other identifying pieces of information. They may pose as representatives from businesses you patronize, government representatives, bank representatives or solicitors.
- Do not carry your Social Security card. Instead, leave it in a secure place.
- Do not list your Social Security number on checks.
- If your driver’s license number is the same as your Social Security number, request that it be changed.
- Do not leave outgoing mail in your mailbox. Instead, drop it in a secure mailbox. If you will be out of town, have someone pick up your mail, or have the Postal Service hold your mail until you return.
- Tear up or shred all receipts and old statements with account numbers or other personal information on them.
- Place passwords on your accounts that make it difficult for thieves to detect or find, preferably an alphanumeric combination with a few special characters that a thief should not guess. Several credit card issuers now allow you to list a question to answer and the password that correctly answers it. Choose a question that is easy to remember and an answer that only you know.
- Follow-up with creditors if bills do not arrive in a timely manner. A thief could have taken control of your account and changed your address to avoid being caught.
- Be wary of promotional scams or anyone requesting personal information. You should completely understand why they need this information and how they wish to use it.
- Cancel all old credit accounts that are no longer active.
- Destroy all old credit cards when an account is closed or when the issuer sends a new replacement card. Discard the pieces in at least two separate places.
- Add software to your personal computers to help protect against spyware and computer hackers. The credit bureau Equifax provides a service, for a fee, where you are notified any time information is requested from your credit file or a new account is added to it. Program participants receive e-mail notification when a credit file has activity. If you are interested in this service, go to Equifax at www.equifax.com, and search for “Equifax Credit Watch.”
What Do I Do if I Believe I am Already a Victim of Identity Theft?
- Contact the fraud departments at any of the three major credit bureaus to place a fraud alert on your credit file. All three will be notified, and they should send you credit reports at no charge.
- Close any accounts that you know have been affected, and complete an “ID Theft Affidavit.”
- File a police report. Get a copy of the police report, and submit a copy to your creditors or any others that may require proof of the crime.
- File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.
Where Can I Find More Information About Identity Theft?
The Federal Trade Commission has a very thorough, complete website dedicated to this topic, at www.ftc.gov/idtheft. Several other sites exist and are easy to find through an Internet search on the topic “identity theft.” For more information regarding this topic, please contact Henssler Financial at 770-429-9166 or [email protected].