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.
In 2014, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that an estimated 17 million Americans were victims of at least one incident of identity theft. 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.
Identity theft is serious. While some identity theft victims can resolve their problems quickly, others spend hundreds of dollars and many days repairing damage to their good name and credit record. Some consumers victimized by identity theft may lose out on job opportunities, or be denied loans for education, housing or cars because of negative information on their credit reports. In rare cases, they may even be arrested for crimes they did not commit.
How do thieves steal an identity?
Identity theft starts with the misuse of your personally identifying information such as your name and Social Security number, credit card numbers, or other financial account information. For identity thieves, this information is as good as gold. Skilled identity thieves may use a variety of methods to get hold of your information, including:
- Dumpster Diving. They rummage through trash looking for bills or other paper with your personal information on it.
- Skimming. They steal credit/debit card numbers by using a special storage device when processing your card.
- Phishing. They pretend to be financial institutions or companies and send spam or pop-up messages to get you to reveal your personal information.
- Changing Your Address. They divert your billing statements to another location by completing a change of address form.
- Old-Fashioned Stealing. They steal wallets and purses; mail, including bank and credit card statements; pre-approved credit offers; and new checks or tax information. They steal personnel records, or bribe employees who have access
- Pretexting. Pretexters sell your information to people who may use it to get credit in your name, to steal your assets, or to investigate or sue you. Pretexting is against the law. They use false pretenses to obtain your personal information from financial institutions, telephone companies, and other sources.
What do thieves do with a stolen identity?
Once they have your personal information, identity thieves use it in a variety of ways.
Credit card fraud:
- They may open new credit card accounts in your name. When they use the cards and don't pay the bills, the delinquent accounts appear on your credit report.
- They may change the billing address on your credit card so that you no longer receive bills, and then run up charges on your account. Because your bills are now sent to a different address, it may be some time before you realize there's a problem.
Phone or utilities fraud:
- They may open a new phone or wireless account in your name, or run up charges on your existing account.
- They may use your name to get utility services like electricity, heating, or cable TV.
- They may create counterfeit checks using your name or account number.
- They may open a bank account in your name and write bad checks.
- They may clone your ATM or debit card and make electronic withdrawals your name, draining your accounts.
- They may take out a loan in your name.
Government documents fraud:
- They may get a driver's license or official ID card issued in your name but with their picture.
- They may use your name and Social Security number to get government benefits.
- They may file a fraudulent tax return using your information.
- They may get a job using your Social Security number.
- They may rent a house or get medical services using your name.
- They may give your personal information to police during an arrest. If they don't show up for their court date, a warrant for arrest is issued in your name.
Protect Yourself against Identity Theft
The bottom line for online threats like phishing, spyware, and hackers is identity theft. ID theft occurs when someone uses your name, Social Security number, credit card number or other personal information without your permission to commit fraud or other crimes. That's why it's important to protect your personal information.
Protect Your Social Security Number
Avoid using your social security number whenever you can. Many places use social security numbers for user identification. Ask to use an alternate number if possible. In addition, don't print it on personal checks. Your Social Security number is the key to most of your financial information which makes it a prime target for criminals. Only give it out when absolutely necessary.
Don't get hooked by a phishing expedition:
- Don't reply to email or pop-up messages that ask for personal or financial information, and don't click on links in the message.
- Don't cut and paste a link from the message into your Web browser -- phishers can make links look like they go one place, but actually send you to a different site.
- Use anti-virus and anti-spyware software, as well as a two-way firewall, and update them all regularly.
- Don't send personal or financial information by email.
- Be cautious about opening any attachment or downloading any files from emails that you receive regardless of who sent them.
If your personal information is stolen, four steps to take:
It's important to protect your personal information, and to take certain steps quickly to minimize the potential damage from identity theft if your information is accidentally disclosed or deliberately stolen:
1. Place a "Fraud Alert" on your credit reports, and review the reports carefully. The alert tells creditors to follow certain procedures before they open new accounts in your name or make changes to your existing accounts. The three nationwide consumer reporting companies have toll-free numbers for placing an initial 90-day fraud alert; a call to one company is sufficient:
- TransUnion: www.transunion.com, 1-800-680-7289
- Experian: www.experian.com, 1-888-EXPERIAN (397-3742)
- Equifax: www.equifax.com, 1-800-525-6285
Placing a fraud alert entitles you to free copies of your credit reports. Look for inquiries from companies you haven't contacted, accounts you didn't open, and debts on your accounts that you can't explain.
2. Close accounts. Close any accounts that have been tampered with or established fraudulently:
- Call the security or fraud departments of each company where an account was opened or changed without your okay. Follow up in writing, with copies of supporting documents.
- Use the ID Theft Affidavit to support your written statement.
- Ask for verification that the disputed account has been closed and the fraudulent debts discharged.
- Keep copies of documents and records of your conversations about the theft.
3. File a police report. File a report with law enforcement officials to help you with creditors who may want proof of the crime. This report will also help you claim your rights as a victim of identity theft.
Report the theft to the Federal Trade Commission. Your report helps law enforcement officials across the country in their investigations.
What can you do to help fight identity theft?
Awareness is an effective weapon against many forms identity theft. Be aware of how information is stolen and what you can do to protect yours, monitor your personal information to uncover any problems quickly, and know what to do when you suspect your identity has been stolen.
Armed with the knowledge of how-to protect yourself and take action, you can make identity thieves' jobs much more difficult. You can also help fight identity theft by educating your friends, family, and members of your community.