Avoiding Identity Theft
Identity theft is usually not an issue on people’s minds unless they’ve experienced it firsthand. Unfortunately, people who have been affected by identity theft spend an average of over $1700 and 175 hours to clear their name and credit! According to the Federal Trade Commission, more than 500,000 Americans will have their identities stolen this year alone.
Common Types of Identity Theft
♦ Using or opening a credit card account fraudulently
♦ Opening cell phone or utility accounts fraudulently
♦ Opening a new bank account in another name and passing bad checks
♦ Obtaining (bank, auto, or mortgage) loans in another person’s name
♦ Working under another person’s name
How Identity Theft Occurs
Identity thieves use a variety of methods to gain access to your personal information, such as:
♦ Stealing wallets or purses containing personal identification and credit or debit cards.
♦ Stealing mail such as bank and credit card statements, pre-approved credit offers, new checks, or tax information.
♦ Completing a “change of address form” to divert your mail to another location.
♦ “Dumpster Diving”- Rummaging through your personal trash, your business’ dumpster, or the local public garbage dump.
♦ Scam information from you via telephone or in person by posing as a legitimate business person or government official.
♦ “Phishing”- criminals send fraudulent e-mails and bogus websites designed to fool recipients into divulging personal information such as credit card numbers, account usernames and passwords, social security numbers, etc.
♦ Gathering information from businesses or other institutions that hold records on you. Thieves may steal records from their employer, bribe an employee who has access to these records, or hack into the organization’s computers.
A Common Scenario
You go into a retail store and purchase some items and then decide to pay by check. This check already has your full name and address (and possibly your phone number) as well as the full name and address of your bank along with your account number. The clerk asks you for your driver’s license (which in 19 states is your Social Security number) and date of birth, then proceeds to write it on the front of the check. This small piece of paper now holds every bit of your personal info anyone would ever need. This check now passes through many hands and can be seen by hundreds of people- such as employees of the retail store you purchased the items from, the check-clearing house, your bank, and possibly a company that shreds the check if you don’t receive them back in your bank statements. Criminals can get enough of your personal information without ever seeing your face or knowing who you are!
While you probably can’t prevent identity theft entirely, you can minimize your risk. By managing your personal information wisely and cautiously, you can help guard against it.
Tips to Avoid Identity Theft
1. Monitor your credit report. Pull your credit report yearly to review activity in your financial records. Look for inaccuracies or accounts being used fraudulently.
2. Watch what you keep in your wallet. Do not carry extra credit cards or other important identity documents, like your Social Security card, except when needed. Place the contents of your wallet on a photocopy machine. Copy both sides of your license and credit cards so you have all the account numbers, expiration dates, and phone numbers if your wallet or purse is ever stolen.
3. Know who you are talking to. Don’t give out personal information on the phone, through the mail, or online unless you initiate the contact and trust that business.
4. Use a shredder. Shred any documents that contain your personal information before discarding. These include all old bank and credit card statements, insurance forms, bills, and pre-approved credit offers.
5. Remove your name from marketing lists. First, contact the three credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) to remove your name from their marketing lists. Second, contact the Direct Marketing Association to add your name to the “Mail and Telephone Preference Service” deletion lists. Lastly, call 1-888-5-OPTOUT to remove your name from the pre-approved credit offers.
6. Monitor your credit card activity. Carefully examine your bank and credit card statements for fraudulent charges before paying them. Cancel unused and unneeded credit card accounts; ask the lender to notate the account as “closed at cardholders request”.
7. Keep mail in a safe location. Thieves troll mailboxes for your personal information. Consider a locked mailbox or a Post Office Box.
How to Remedy Identity Theft
If you suspect that your personal information has been used to commit fraud or identity theft take the following steps immediately:
1. Contact the Fraud Center of each major credit bureau and the Social Security Administration. Ask that a “fraud alert” be placed on your file, as well as request that no new lines of credit be granted without first seeking your approval. On the next page is the Fraud Center contact info for each major credit bureau and the SSA.
2. Close accounts that have been fraudulently accessed or opened. Notify creditors and financial institutions involved that you believe you have been the victim of identity theft or fraud. If you open any new accounts, put new passwords on them.
3. File a report with local police or the police where the identity theft took place. Be sure to get a copy of the report (or report number) in case the bank, credit bureaus, or credit card companies need proof of the crime.
4. File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. Call the FTC’s ID Theft Clearinghouse toll-free at 877-ID-THEFT. The FTC also provides an ID Theft Affidavit that can help you organize and accurately record your complaint- all three credit bureaus and most lenders will accept this form as notification.
Remember, in trying to remedy identity theft, it is vital that you work to resolve suspected fraud as quickly and effectively as possible. Follow up all phone calls to the agencies listed above in writing. Send letters by certified mail, return receipt requested so that you can document what the agency received and when. And, don’t forget to keep copies of all the letters that you send.
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