What is identity theft?
Identity theft occurs when someone uses your personally identifying information, like your name, Social Security number, or credit card number, without your permission, to commit fraud or other crimes.
The FTC estimates that as many as 9 million Americans have their identities stolen each year. In fact, you or someone you know may have experienced some form of identity theft.
The crime takes many forms. Identity thieves may rent an apartment, obtain a credit card, or establish a telephone account in your name. You may not find out about the theft until you review your credit report or a credit card statement and notice charges you didn’t make—or until you’re contacted by a debt collector.
No matter how cautious you are, there is no way to completely prevent identity theft from occurring. But there are ways you can help minimize your risk. This page contains valuable information on how you can protect yourself by managing your personal information wisely, the warning signs of identity theft, and what to do if you do become a victim.
- In the home, keep personal information safe, especially if you have roommates or are having any work done in your home. Don't keep Personal Identification Numbers (PINs) near your checkbook, ATM card, or debit card.
- Anything with an account number on it can be used in identity theft. Shred any papers with confidential information before you throw them out - even the junk mail. Anything with an account number can be used in identity theft. This includes prescreened credit card offers, receipts, canceled checks, bank statements, expired charge cards, doctors' bills, and insurance documents.
- Since many identity thefts are traced to having a purse or wallet stolen, carry as few cards with identification and personal information as possible. Don't take your social security number, and bring as few credit cards as you can. Think about putting different cards in different parts of your purse or knapsack.
- You should be wary of any mail, telephone, or Internet request for information - it could be "pretexting." Unless you initiated the contact with a business, don't give out any confidential information - such as your credit card number, social security number, PIN, birth date, or even your mother's maiden name. Also be careful of unexpected e-mails that look as if they are from a legitimate company asking you to enter some information at a linked web site; sometimes phony web sites can look real. Make sure your family members also know not to give out any information to others.
- Check your banking and credit statements soon after you receive them and make sure there is no unexplained activity. Keep track of when in the month each of your bills usually arrives. If a bill does not arrive on time, call the company to make sure no changes have been made to your account. Often, identity thieves will change the address of a bill so that it will take you longer to figure out the scam. If you're careful, you may notice the theft earlier.
Out of the Home - Shopping and Services
- When you sign a credit card slip, avoid putting your address, telephone number, or driver's license number on it. Also, be sure to take your receipts with you to shred at home because "dumpster diving" is very common at large retail areas, such as malls. This will help to minimize how much personal information about you is floating around out there.
- Be particularly wary of giving out your social security number. Few institutions - businesses granting you credit, employers filling out tax forms for you, or government agencies - have any reasonable cause to know your social security number. However, a business may refuse to serve you if you do not give them the information they request. It is up to you if you still want to do business with the establishment.
Check your credit report
How to Read Your Credit Report
1. Check to make sure you are aware of all accounts listed, and balances are what you expect them to be.
2. Look for anything suspicious in the section that lists who has received a copy of your credit history. Some identity thieves “pretext” by posing as a landlord or employer.
3. Make sure no inquiries have been made about loans or leases you didn’t apply for.
4. Check for addresses where you have never lived.
5. Check for typos in your social security number.
If there is any incorrect information in the records, contact the credit bureau, creditor, employer, or government agency immediately. Follow up with a letter describing what actions were taken. Your protections are usually stronger if you report the problem quickly and in writing.
Many people don't realize they are victims of identity theft until long after the initial crime occurred. Identity thieves often try to hide the crimes for as long as possible so that they can access more money. To stop the crimes as soon as possible, make sure you carefully check your credit reports regularly. Your credit reports are important tools for limiting the amount of damage a thief can cause.
Equifax - www.equifax.com
To order your report, call: 1-800-685-1111
To report fraud, call: 1-800-525-6285
Experian - www.experian.com
To order your credit report or report fraud, call: 1-888-EXPERIAN (397-3742)
TransUnion - www.transunion.com
To order your report, call: 800-916-8800
To report fraud, call: 1-800-680-7289