Identity Theft and You
According to the FTC, identity theft occurs when an individual's personally identifying information (e.g., SSN), is used without permission, to commit fraud or other crimes. It is the fastest growing crime in the United States and is estimated to occur every three seconds. More than 11 million Americans have their identity stolen each year.
Precautions to Protect Your Identity
So, how can you protect yourself from such a widespread crime? You can do all you can to protect your identity by taking the following precautions:
Use uncommon passwords. You should create passwords that do not contain easily available information, such as your mother's maiden name, birth date, Social Security Number, phone number, etc. Be sure you avoid any sort of password that can be easily traced to you. Additionally, avoid using the same password for all of your business; change them as much as possible.
Secure Your Personal Information in the Home or at Work. Whether using a locked file cabinet or other secure location, things such as checks, social security numbers, bills, etc., should be secured under lock and key. At work, be sure to keep your personal belongings locked in a secure place as well.
Don't Give Out Personal Information. Don't give out personal information over the telephone, online or through the mail unless you have initiated the contact. Additionally, you should always ask why certain information is required in any sort of membership or application process.
Guard Your Mail. You should deposit outgoing mail in post office collection boxes or at your local post office rather than in your mailbox on the porch or some other "insecure" location. If you go on vacation, you should put a hold on your mail delivery through the U.S. Postal Service.
Guard Your Trash. You should tear, cut or shred all personal information (e.g., financial statements, expired credit cards, pre-approved credit offers, physician statements, insurance forms, receipts, etc) prior to throwing it in dumpsters.
Carry a Limited Amount of Credit Cards. You should only carry the credit and debit cards you need during the day. Additionally, you should not carry your passport or birth certificate in your wallet unless you are required to do so.
Protect Your Social Security Number. Do not carry your Social Security Number (SSN) in your wallet or pocket. Only give out your SSN when absolutely necessary. Also, take precautions when your SSN is on your health or medical card, and you should never put it on your driver's license or personal checks.
Pay Attention to Billing Cycles and Statements. You should be aware of your billing cycles for all credit cards and other financial bills. Then, you should follow-up with your creditors if bills do not get to you on time. Additionally, you should pay attention to your financial statements, and balance your checking accounts on a regular basis.
Review Your Credit Report. By law, every person has the right to obtain one free credit report every 12 months. There is only one website authorized to fill orders for the free annual credit report: www.annualcreditreport.com. If you find any discrepancy on your report, please contact the credit agency and your creditor as soon as possible.
Tips to Prevent Online Theft
An identity thief need not step into your house, or even go through your trash, to obtain personal information about you. The following are some important tips given by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to help you prevent online information theft:
Update your virus protection program regularly to avoid viruses that may cause permanent damage to your computer.
DO NOT download files you receive from strangers or click on hyperlinks from people you don't know.
Report suspicious e-mail immediately to the "faked" organization.
Be wary of clicking links on e-mail.
Use a firewall program, especially if you use a high-speed Internet connection; this will allow you to stop "uninvited guests" from accessing your computer.
Use a secure browser to guard the security of your online transactions.
Before you get rid of your computer, be sure to remove ALL the data. Use a "wipe" utility to overwrite the entire hard drive.
Look for website privacy policies on all sites you frequent. If you don't see one, consider "surfing" someplace else.
Check the security certificate when you are entering personal or financial information into a website. (NOTE: In Internet Explorer, you can do this by checking the yellow lock icon on the status bar.)
Type addresses directly into your browser or use your personal bookmarks.
Reporting Identity Theft
After you have done all you can, know that the law is also on your side. There are many different laws that have been enacted or amended specifically to combat identity theft. If you find that you are a victim of identity theft, there are some specific things you should do immediately.
Contact any one of the major credit bureaus in order to place a fraud alert on your accounts. The fraud alert will request creditors to contact you before any new accounts are opened or changes are made to your existing accounts. As soon as the credit bureau confirms your fraud alert, the other two credit bureaus will be contacted and you will be sent three copies of your credit report at no cost.
Close the accounts you believe to be affected. You may want to use the ID Theft Affidavit provided by the FTC to help you dispute unauthorized accounts or transactions. You can locate the ID Theft Affidavit at http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/resources/forms/affidavit.pdf. Many financial institutions or other creditors ask that you send the affidavit within two weeks of when you discover the problem. Some may ask you to fill out their own forms, but this form will help you out as well.
File a police report and get a copy of it to provide to your creditors and others that may require proof of the crime.
File your complaint with the FTC as it is the "clearinghouse" for all identity theft claims. Although the FTC cannot actually bring charges against a thief, it can help to put you in contact with those who can prosecute such a crime.
There are some products and services out in the industry today that tout the ability to help you prevent identity theft…most notably, credit monitoring and repair companies, and identity theft insurance. While some services may be helpful, you must remember that when you are dealing with straightening up an identity theft issue, most companies and creditors will only want to deal directly with you. Just be cautious with whom you are working with when it comes to getting outside help with your identity theft issue.
Unfortunately, there is nothing that will pinpoint exactly when or where an identity thief may strike. Take the precautions necessary to protect your name and your financial future.