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What is Identity Theft?
Identity theft is the fastest-growing crime in the nation today. It is affecting over half a million people each year, costing millions of dollars in damage to credit ratings and savings accounts.
Identity theft occurs when someone uses your personally identifying information, like your name, Social Security number, or credit card number, without your permission, to commit fraud or other crimes. The Federal Trade Commission estimates that as many as 10 million Americans have their identities stolen each year.
Identity theft is serious. People whose identities have been stolen can spend hundreds of dollars and dozens of hours cleaning up the mess thieves have made of their good name and credit record. Consumers victimized by identity theft may lose out on job opportunities, or be denied loans for education, housing, or cars because of negative information on their credit reports. They may even be arrested for crimes they did not commit. The potential for damage, loss and stress is considerable.
How do thieves steal an identity?
You may be the victim of identity theft and not even know it. Identity theft starts with the misuse of your personally identifying information. For identity thieves, your name and Social Security number, credit card numbers, or other financial account information is as good as gold. Skilled identity thieves may use a variety of methods to get hold of your information:
- They may steal your mail, wallet, or purse. They may even rummage through trash looking for bills or other papers with your personal information on it.
- They may get personal information from you by posing as legitimate companies through email, in a practice known as “phishing.” Or they might lie to you on the phone.
- They may take your information from businesses or other institutions by stealing personnel records, bribing or conning an employee who has access to these records, or breaking into your records electronically. Some identity theft victims even report that their information has been stolen by someone they know.
What can you do?
With the rapid advancements of technology in our society comes increased risks of identity theft. The following steps can help reduce the risk that you will be a victim of identity theft.
- Shred, burn or destroy documents containing personal information prior to disposing of them, including blank credit card applications and convenience checks.
- Don’t put your Social Security number on your driver’s license.
- Never give personal information over the phone unless you have initiated the contact to a verifiable company or financial institution. If a company you do business with calls you and needs personal information, call them back to ensure you are talking with the right people.
- Do not keep your registration, insurance, checkbook, receipts or other information that can identify you in your car. Do not leave your car unlocked or unattended.
- Make sure you use a secure connection if you use the internet to purchase items, bank or otherwise give personal information. Look for the security lock and “https” in the address bar when visiting a website.
- Do not respond to emails requesting personal information.
- Purchase virus protection software for your computer and keep it up to date. Free upgrades are usually available to subscribers. Run virus scans on a frequent basis. Visit www.OnGuardOnline.gov for more information.
- Request a copy of your credit report at least once a year. You can receive a free credit report at www.annualcreditreport.com.
- Review your credit card statements for purchases that were not made by you and contact your credit card company immediately if you discover an unauthorized purchase.
- Protect your Social Security number. Never give it out over the phone, carry it in your wallet or write it on a check.
- Use passwords on your accounts that are not easy to figure out. Come up with original passwords that are not associated with your daily life or identifiable in anyway other than to you.
- Do not store your list of passwords in an easily obtainable place such as your wallet, rolodex, etc. Keep your personal information in a secure place especially if you have roommates, employ outside help or are having work done in your house.
- When entering your PIN number, make sure that others cannot see the numbers you press.
- When traveling, stop all mail, newspapers and other recurring deliveries.
- Finally, keep a list of all credit card account numbers and expiration dates so that you can contact creditors quickly.
If you have been a victim of identity theft:
- Contact your local law enforcement agency;
- Immediately contact the three credit reporting agencies and ask for a “Fraud Alert,” which will help prevent new credit accounts from being opened without your permission;
- Contact the Social Security Administration Fraud Hotline (1-800-269-0271). Alert them that your number has been stolen;
- Contact your banks and credit card companies. Review your statements;
- And click on the Federal Trade Commission for in-depth information on the steps you should immediately take.