Identity theft is one of the fastest growing types of financial fraud. Without stealing your wallet, a crook can steal your financial identity with as little information as your social security number. It is also called "account-takeover fraud" or "true-name fraud," and it involves crooks assuming your identity by applying for credit, running up huge bills and stiffing creditors--all in your name.
Take these steps to protect yourself:
- Get a copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus every year. It lists all of the lines of credit in your name. Check to be sure that everything is accurate, that all of the accounts are yours and that accounts you have requested to be closed are marked closed. To obtain a free credit report, log onto www.annualcreditreport.com or call (877) 322-8228. The contact information for the three credit bureau reporting agencies are:
Trans Union Credit Services Phone: 800-888-4213 Web: www.transunion.com
Equifax Credit Services Phone: 800-685-1111 Web: www.equifax.com
Experian Credit Services Phone: 888-397-3742 Web: www.experian.com
- Keep an eye on your accounts throughout the year by reading your monthly/periodic statements thoroughly. That's an easy way for you to be sure that all of the activity in your accounts was initiated by you.
- Tear up or shred pre-approved credit offers, receipts and other personal information that link your name to account numbers. Don't leave your ATM or credit card receipt in public trash cans. Crooks (a.k.a. dumpster divers) are known to go through trash to get account numbers and other items that will give them just enough information to get credit in your name.
- If your credit card or other bills are more than two weeks late, you should do three things: First, contact the Postal Service to see if someone has forwarded your mail to another address. Second, contact your bank to ask if the statement or card has been mailed. Third, contact the businesses that send your bills.
- Protect your account information. Don't write your personal identification number (PIN) on your ATM or debit card. Don't write your social security number or credit card account number on a check. Cover your hand when you are entering your PIN number at an ATM.
- Don't carry your Social Security card, passport or birth certificate unless you need it that day. Take all but one or two credit cards out of your wallet, and keep a list at home of your account information and customer service telephone numbers. That way, if your wallet is lost or stolen, you will only have to notify a few of your creditors and the infomation will be handy.
- Never provide personal or credit card information over the phone unless you initiated the call. Crooks are known to call with news that you've won a prize and all they need is your credit card number for verification. Don't fall for it. Remember the old saying: "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."
More consumer tips to avoid becoming a victim of identity theft...Manage Your Mailbox
- Don't leave bill payment envelopes clipped to your mailbox or inside with the flag up; criminals may steal your mail and change your address.
- Know your billing cycles and watch for any missing mail. Follow up with creditors if bills or new cards do not arrive on time. An identity thief may have filed a change of address request in your name with the creditor or the post office.
- Carefully review your monthly accounts, credit card statements and utility bills (including cellular telephone bills) for unauthorized charges as soon as you receive them. If you suspect unauthorized use, contact the provider's customer service and fraud departments immediately.
- When you order new checks, ask when you can expect delivery. If your mailbox is not secure, then ask to pick up the checks instead of having them delivered to your home.
- Although many consumers appreciate the convenience and customer service of general direct mail, some prefer not to receive offers of pre-approved financing or credit. To "opt out" of receiving such offers, call (888) 5-OPT-OUT sponsored by the credit bureaus.
- The Direct Marketing Association offers to help reduce the number of mail and telephone solicitations. To join their mail preference service, mail your name, home address and signature to Mail Preference Service, Direct Marketing Association, PO Box 9008, Farmingdale, NY 11735-9008.
Check your purse or wallet
- Never leave your purse or wallet unattended--even for a minute.
- If your state uses your Social Security number as your driver's license number, ask to substitute another number. Keep your personal numbers safe and secure.
- When creating passwords and PINs, do not use any part of your Social Security number, birth date, middle name, spouse's name, child's name, pet's name, mother's maiden name, address, consecutive numbers, or anything a thief could easily deduce or discover.
- Ask businesses to substitute a secret alpha-numeric code as a password instead of your mother's maiden name.
- Memorize your passwords and PINs. Never keep them in your wallet, purse, rolodex, or electronic organizer.
- Get your Social Security number out of circulation and release it only when necessary--for example, on tax forms and employment records, or for banking, stock and property transactions.
- Do not have your Social Security number printed on your checks, and do not allow merchants to write your Social Security number on your checks. If a business requests your Social Security number ask to use an alternate number.
Bank, shop and spend wisely
- Store personal information in a safe place and shred or tear up documents you don't need. Destroy charge receipts, copies of credit applications, insurance forms, bank checks and statements, expired charge cards and credit offers you get in the mail before you put them out in the trash.
- Cancel your unused credit cards so that their account numbers will not appear on your credit report.
- When you fill out a loan or credit application, be sure that the business either shreds these applications or stores them in locked files.
- When possible, watch your credit card as the merchant completes the transaction.
- Use credit cards that have your photo and signature on the front.
- Sign your credit cards immediately upon receipt.
- Carefully consider what information you want placed in the residence telephone book and ask yourself what it reveals about you.
- Keep track of credit card, debit card and ATM receipts. Never throw them in a public trash container. You should tear them up or shred them at home when you no longer need them.
- Ask businesses what their privacy policies are and how they will use your information: Can you choose to keep it confidential? Do they restrict access to data?
- Choose to do business with companies you know are reputable, particularly online.
- When conducting business online, use a secure browser that encrypts or scrambles purchase information and make sure your browser's padlock or key icon is active. Avoid sending personal information by chat room or email.
- Don't open email from unknown sources. Use virus detection software.
Review your information
- Check your Social Security Earnings and Benefits statement once each year to make sure that no one else is using your Social Security number for employment.
Take action if you are a victim
- Financial fraud is a crime; call your local police department. File a police report with your local police department. Obtain a police report number with the date, time, police department, location and police officer taking the report. The police report may initiate an investigation into the loss with the goal of identifying, arresting and prosecuting the offender and possibly recovering your lost items. The police report will be helpful when clarifying to creditors that you are a victim of identity theft.
- Contact the fraud units of all three credit bureaus. Ask them to "flag" your account, which tells creditors that you are a victim of identity fraud. Also, add a victim's statement to each of your credit bureau reports that asks creditors to contact you in person to verify all applications made in your name. Call the fraud units of the credit bureaus at:
Trans Unon Fraud Assistance: Phone: 800-680-7289
Equifax Fraud Assistance: Phone: 800-525-6285
Experian Fraud Assistance: Phone: 888-397-3742
- Call the Federal Trade Commission's ID Theft hotline at (877) ID-THEFT. The hotline is staffed by counselors trained to help ID theft victims. Check out their website at www.consumer.gov/idtheft.
- Notify your banks. They can help you obtain new account numbers for all of your checking, savings, and other accounts. Be sure to pick a new PIN for your ATM and debit cards. Close all of your credit card accounts and open with new account numbers. Contact your bank(s) and credit card issuers immediately so that the following can de done: Access to your accounts can be protected, stop payments on missing checks, personal identification numbers and online banking passwords changed, and a new account opened if appropriate. Be sure to indicate to the bank or the card issuer all of the accounts and/or cards potentially impacted including ATM cards, check (debit) cards and credit cards. Customer service or fraud prevention telephone numbers can generally be found on your monthly statements. Contact the major check verification companies to request they notify retailers using their databases not to accept these stolen checks or ask your bank to notify the check verification service with which it does business. Three of the check verification companies that accept reports of check fraud directly from consumers are: TeleCheck: Phone: 800-710-9898
International Check Services: Phone: 800-631-8656
- Notify the Postal Inspector if you suspect mail theft--a felony
- Depending on your situation, you may want to contact the Social Security Administration to get a new Social Security number. Their telephone number is 800-772-1213. You also may want to contact your telephone, long distance, water, gas and electrical companies to alert them that someone may try to open an account in your name. The Social Security Administration Fraud Line: 800-269-0271.
- Finally, make sure to maintain a log of all the contacts you make with authorities regarding the matter. Write down each person's name, title, and phone number in case you need to re-contact them or refer to them in future correspondence. Make a written chronology of what happened, what was lost and the steps you took to report the incident to the various agencies, banks and firms impacted. Be sure to record the date, time, contact telehone numbers, person you talked to and any relevant report or reference number and instructions.