Identity Theft

In the course of a busy day, you may write a check at the grocery store, charge tickets to a ball game, rent a car, mail your tax returns, call home on your cell phone, order new checks or apply for a credit card. Chances are you don't give these everyday transactions a second thought. But someone else may.

New Wave of Crime
The 1990's spawned a new variety of crooks called identity thieves. Their stock in trade are your everyday transactions. Each transaction you make requires you to share personal information: your bank and credit card account numbers; your income; your Social Security number (SSN); and your name, address and phone numbers.

An identity thief co-opts some piece of your personal information and appropriates it without your knowledge to commit fraud or theft. An all-too-common example is when an identity thief uses your personal information to open a credit card account in your name. Last year 9.3 million Americans were victims of identity fraud, a problem that costs consumers and businesses some $52 billion.

Obtaining Personal Information
How do identity thieves get your personal information? They steal wallets and purses containing your identification and credit and bank cards; They steal your mail, including your bank and credit card statements, pre-approved credit offers, telephone calling cards and tax information. They complete a "change of address form" to divert your mail to another location. They use personal information you share on the Internet, however, less than 12% of all identity theft cases started online.

Using Personal Information
How do identity thieves use your personal information? They open a new credit card account, using your name, date of birth and SSN. When they use the credit card and don't pay the bills, the delinquent account is reported on your credit report. They counterfeit checks or debit cards, and drain your bank account. They open a bank account in your name and write bad checks on that account. They buy cars by taking out auto loans in your name.

Preventing Identity Theft
Can you completely prevent identity theft from occurring? Probably not, especially if someone is determined to commit the crime. But you can minimize your risk by managing your personal information wisely, cautiously and with heightened sensitivity. Before you reveal any personally identifying information, find out how it will be used and whether it will be shared with others.

Guard your mail from theft. Deposit outgoing mail in post office collection boxes or at your local post office. Promptly remove mail from your mailbox after it has been delivered. Put passwords on your credit card, bank and phone accounts. Avoid using easily available information like your mother's maiden name, your birth date, the last four digits of your SSN (Social Security Number) or your phone number, or a series of consecutive numbers.

Minimize the identification information and the number of cards you carry to what you'll actually need. Do not give out personal information on the phone, through the mail or over the Internet unless you have initiated the contact or know who you're dealing with. Identity thieves may pose as representatives of banks, Internet service providers and even government agencies to get you to reveal your SSN, mother's maiden name, financial account numbers and other identifying information. Don't carry your SSN card; leave it in a secure place. Give your SSN only when absolutely necessary. Ask to use other types of identifiers when possible.

Federal Trade Commission Involvement
The Congress of the United States asked the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to provide information to consumers about identity theft and to take complaints from those whose identities have been stolen. If you've been a victim of identity theft, you can call the FTC's Identity Theft Hotline toll-free at 1-877-IDTHEFT (438-4338). The FTC puts your information into a secure consumer fraud database and may, in appropriate instances, share it with other law enforcement agencies.

Steps to Take
Sometimes an identity thief can strike even if you've been very careful about keeping your personal information to yourself. If you suspect that your personal information has been stolen and misappropriated to commit fraud or theft, take action immediately, and keep a record of your conversations and correspondence. Exactly which steps you should take to protect yourself depends on your circumstances and how your identity has been misused. However, three basic actions are appropriate in almost every case.
  1. First, contact the fraud departments of each of the three major credit bureaus.
  2. Second, contact the creditors for any accounts that have been tampered with or opened fraudulently.
  3. Third, file a report with your local police or the police in the community where the identity theft took place.