How to Protect Yourself from Identity Theft
What is Identity Theft
Identity theft can happen to anyone, even you. Identity theft occurs when someone fraudulently uses your personal information to access your financial accounts, to open new accounts in your name, or to obtain benefits in your name. The thief uses your accurate information, such as you Social Security number, driver’s license number, or bank records. In some cases, the thief can commit crimes in your name, creating a complex mess which takes time, effort and expense to straighten out.
According to the United States Federal Trade Commission, as many as nine million Americans have their identity stolen each year. Identity theft can have serious consequences. The thief’s fraudulent activity will appear on your credit report, damaging your credit history. Identity theft can lead to collection efforts against you or to you being turned down for financing. It can even lead to problems finding a job or an apartment, depending on the nature of the fraudulent activity that shows on your credit report.
Discovering Identity Theft
There are various ways to discover that you are the victim if identity theft. The best way to see if your identity has been compromised is to review your credit reports.
Check Your Credit Report Regularly
Check your credit report at least once a year, preferably more often. You are entitled to one free credit report annually from each of the three main credit bureaus. Visit the Web sites of the three major credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) or www.annualcreditreport.com . A good strategy is to stagger your requests at annualcreditreport.com, viewing a report from one of the three bureaus every four months. You can also call to request the report. If the report includes items that are inaccurate, request that the report be corrected. If you find fraudulent activity, contact the Federal Trade Commission to learn what steps to take.
Pay Attention to Your Bills
If you miss a bill that you regularly receive, call the company immediately. One identity theft method is to complete a change of address form in your name, so that your bills go to the thief instead of to you. Then, the thief can use the bill as identification or can prevent you from seeing bills that contain charges you did not make.
Protecting Yourself from Identity Theft
Because the potential consequences of identity theft are so severe, you should take prudent steps to protect yourself.
Protect Your Private Information
Do not carry your Social Security (SS) numbers or cards. Many companies routinely ask for SS numbers as customer identifiers. You are not required to give them that information. Politely refuse to provide the number. If you are a student, ask your college or university -- and student loan lenders -- to issue a unique account number rather than using the SS number as an identifier. If your health insurance card contains your SS number, make a copy and black out the first five digits and carry that copy. Do not provide your SS number on a resume or job application; provide the number after being hired.
Keep Your Driver's License Number Private
Thieves can use your driver's license numbers to harm you. They can use a fraudulent driver’s license as a fake ID, using it to access your financial accounts or open new accounts in your name. A thief whose driving record prevents him from obtaining a license or auto insurance may also use your good driving record to aid in getting a license. Keep your driver's license number safe. Do not write it on paperwork. Also, check your driver’s record periodically with your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles. If any accidents or tickets you are not responsible for appear on your record, it is a good indication that your identity has been compromised.
Guard Your Mail
Thieves can steal your mail, thereby accessing a treasure trove of private information. If possible, have your mail delivered to a locked mailbox. Drop your outgoing mail in an official mailbox, rather than leaving it in an unlocked home mailbox for carrier pickup. Thieves can steal outgoing mail as easily as incoming, in order to obtain your account numbers.
Shred private information
Buy a shredder. Don’t put your private information in the trash, where it is easy pickings for an identity thief. Shred any paperwork that contains your private information. This includes yours bills, account statements, and credit card offers, as well as medical records, your tax information, and any job-related paperwork.
Exercise Caution Online
You may transact much of your financial business online. Be sure the Web sites that you use have proper security measures. Common indicators you should look for are the secure symbol in the lower right-hand corner of your screen and language about security measures, such as virus/hacker scans and secure transaction protections. Make sure these are present before making online purchases. If in doubt, withhold credit card or other private information. Be concerned about even secure businesses: In 2008, the Identity Theft Resource Center reports, companies had 646 data breaches (loss of data security) -- an increase of 47 percent over 2007 numbers.
Watch out for email scams. Phishing is very common online. Phishing is when you get a fake email that appears to be from a financial entity with which you may do business. They phishing email asks you to verify or reveal your private information. Phishing can also occur online via a pop-up window. No financial entity, such as a bank, credit card company or government agency requires you to update information online. Always call the company or agency, to verify if they actually are seeking information from you.
Social networks, such as Facebook, are extremely popular. Do not disclose your private information in these places. Even something as innocent as your date of birth or telephone number could be a key factor in compromising your identity.
Be Wary on the Phone
Never give out private information in a phone call you did not initiate. The caller might be impersonating a trusted business. If in doubt, ask the caller to mail or e-mail information so you can make a purchase or contribution decision at your convenience. Alternatively, call the company back at a number you know is valid and see if they are seeking the information the caller asked you to divulge.
Get Smart About Scams
If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Be wary of offers to refinance your home or obtain a credit card with no SS number, no job or no credit. Never respond to e-mails touting huge international lottery prizes or a need for help transferring millions of dollars. Simply delete the messages.
Consider Online Billing
Financial institutions are among the most secure online. Many people believe e-billing (receiving statements via e-mail) can prevent identity theft by eliminating the paper trail. Be sure the company is reliable and your e-mail address is secure.
Guard Your Children's Credit
Identity thieves love to steal children's private information. Unless you monitor your children’s credit, it can take years for you to realize something is wrong. Parents should watch for unsolicited mail that arrives in the child’s name, such as credit card offers, bank statements for an account the parent did not open. A credit report should not exist in your child’s name until that child’s first credit application as an adult.
The consequences of identity theft can be very severe. A thief can run up bills in your name, open new accounts in your name, or even engage in criminal activity using your name and identity. Because identity theft is a growing problem that can cause you great harm, you should take basic preventative measures. It may take some extra time and effort for you to protect yourself on the front end, but that is a small price to pay compared to the time and expense it will cost you to straighten out the problem after your identity has been stolen. If you follow the simple advice above, you should be able to avoid identity theft or minimize the harm it causes you.