Identity theft is the number 1 consumer fraud in the nation. About 1 million Americans were victimized by identity theft in 2002, according to law enforcement officials and privacy advocates. The largest identity theft ring in U.S. history was busted in November, 2002 – it involved 30,000 victims and an estimated $2.7 million.
Identity theft can result in “temporary and sometimes permanent financial loss when wages are garnished, tax funds are withheld, or liens are placed on victims’ property as a result of someone else’s criminal use of their identity,” Howard Beales, director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of consumer protection, told congress in 2002.
Victims also report being denied employment, credit, loans and mortgages, government benefits, utilities and leases when credit reports and background checks show fraudulently incurred debts or wrongful criminal records.
According to the non-profit Privacy Rights Clearinghouse and the FTC, on average, victims spend more than 175 hours and $1000.00 to clear their names.
What to Do
Here are some simple steps experts and victims recommend to help prevent identity theft and limit the damage if it happens to you.
- Once a year – starting now – check your credit report from all three of the credit reporting agencies: Equifax (800-685-1111) www.equifax.com ; Experian (888-397-3742) www.experian.com ; TransUnion (800-888-4213) www.tuc.com . Look for anything amiss. Confirm your records are up to date.
- Develop the habit of reading your account statements as they arrive – bank, credit card, etc. Unauthorized credit card charges are often the first red flag.
- Guard your Social Security Number assiduously. Don’t carry your card with you. Don’t put your SSN or driver’s license # on your checks. Don’t give your SSN to anyone unless absolutely necessary (tax forms, employment records, most banking, stock and property transactions). The SSN is the key criminals use to unlock your finances.
- Don’t carry extra credit cards, your birth certificate or your passport with you except when necessary. Reduce the number of credit cards you use to a minimum.
- Arrange the documents and cards in your wallet on a photocopy machine and copy both sides of each license, credit card, ATM card, health insurance card, etc. Keep these copies in a safe place. If your wallet is lost or stolen, you will have the numbers to call immediately.
- Order new checks that use only your first initial with your last name. If someone steals your checkbook, he won’t know whether you sign your checks with your first name or just your initials – but your bank will know. Arrange to pick up your new checks at your bank instead of having them mailed to you.
- Get a paper shredder (crosscut shredders work best). Destroy all mail, credit card offers and papers you throw out that contain sensitive information. Identity thieves need only your name, address and SSN – which they can obtain from trashed mail or wallet contents.
- Consider telephone solicitors suspect. Never confirm or provide any personal information (date of birth, mother’s maiden name, ATM pin numbers, address) unless you initiated the call.
- Send all outgoing mail from your post office. If you can, lock your mailbox. Try not to let mail stay in your mailbox for long.
- Reduce the number of pre-approved credit card offers by removing your name from the marketing lists of the credit reporting bureaus. Call 888-5OPT OUT. (You will have to provide your SSN.)
- Call your credit card companies, bank and phone company and ask to place passwords or extra security protection on your accounts.
- NEVER allow your credit card number to be written as an ID on your checks.
- Create passwords and PINS (Personal Identification Numbers) that are unpredictable – don’t use the last four digits of your SSN, your date of birth, middle name, etc. Remove all PINS and passwords from your wallet or purse.
- Don’t leave ATM, gas pump and credit card receipts behind. Never toss them in a public trash container.
- Order your Social Security Earnings and Benefits Statement once a year from the Social Security Administration to check for fraud (800-772-1213); www.ssa.gov/ .
- Keep your cancelled checks in a safe place – they reveal a lot of personal information.
- Update your virus protection software today and regularly hereafter, or whenever a new virus alert is announced.
- Install a firewall program – especially if you have a high speed internet connection such as cable, DSL or T-1.
- Install an anti-spy program that searches and destroys spy software that infiltrates your computer from the internet. Lavasoft’s Ad-Aware (www.lavasoftusa.com) is free.
- Don’t store financial information on your laptop. If you must, use a password. Don’t use the automatic log-in and password feature.
- Keep a separate credit card with a lower limit exclusively for online transactions.
If you suspect you are a victim of identity fraud
- Call the fraud divisions of the credit reporting agencies and place a “fraud alert” on your name and SSN. Any company or creditor must then contact you first to authorize new credit. Ask the credit agencies to send you copies of your reports – identity theft victims get them free!
- File a police report in the jurisdiction where the theft happened. If you suspect mail was used, notify your local postmaster.
- Notify your bank so that it will notify you if there is any unusual activity in your account. Change your PINs.
- Contact creditors who have opened fraudulent accounts or permitted access to your existing accounts. Tell them this is a case of identity theft and close those accounts. Request copies of all applications and transactions on the accounts.
- Call the FTC – the national clearinghouse for complaints by victims of identity theft – at 877-IDTHEFT. File it’s ID Theft Affadavit, which alerts companies and organizations that may have fraudulent accounts opened in your name.
Numbers You Need
To order credit reports from Credit Bureaus (there may be a charge):
To contact the fraud divisions of the Credit Bureaus:
Equifax 800-525-6285 www.equifax.com
Experian 888-397-3742 www.experian.com
TransUnion 800-680-7289 www.tuc.com
FTC ID Theft Hotline 877-IDTHEFT
Order a Social Security Statement 800-722-1213
Identity Theft Resource Center(nonprofit affiliate of Privacy Rights Clearinghouse) 858-693-7935