Identity Theft: How to Protect Yourself

By Carol Mathis, RHU

id theftIn the course of a busy day, you may write a check at the grocery store, charge tickets to a ball game, rent a car, mail your tax returns, change service providers for your cell phone, or apply for a credit card. Chances are you don’t give these everyday transactions a second thought.

But an identity thief does.

Identity theft is a serious crime. People whose identities have been stolen can spend months or years and thousands of dollars cleaning up the mess the thieves have made of a good name and credit record. In the meantime, victims of identity theft may lose job opportunities, be refused loans for education, housing, or cars, and even get arrested for crimes they didn’t commit.

Humiliation, anger, and frustration are among the feelings victims experience as they navigate the process of rescuing their identity.

Working with other government agencies and organizations, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has produced this booklet to help you remedy the effects of an identity theft. It describes what steps to take, your legal rights, how to handle specific problems you may encounter on the way to clearing your name, and what to watch for in the future.

How Identity Theft Occurs

From a consumer’s complaint to the FTC, July 9, 2004:

“I first was notified that someone had used my Social Security number for their taxes in February 2004. I also found out that this person opened a checking account, cable and utility accounts, and a cell phone account in my name. I’m still trying to clear up everything and just received my income tax refund after waiting four to five months. Trying to work and get all this cleared up is very stressful.”

Despite your best efforts to manage the flow of your personal information or to keep it to yourself, skilled identity thieves may use a variety of methods to gain access to your data.

How Identity Thieves Get Your Personal Information:

•    They get information from businesses or other institutions by:
•    stealing records or information while they’re on the job
•    bribing an employee who has access to these records
•    hacking these records
•    conning information out of employees
•    They may steal your mail, including bank and credit card statements, credit card offers, new checks, and tax information.
•    They may rummage through your trash, the trash of businesses, or public trash dumps in a practice known as “dumpster diving.”
•    They may get your credit reports by abusing their employer’s authorized access to them, or by posing as a landlord, employer, or someone else who may have a legal right to access your report.
•    They may steal your credit or debit card numbers by capturing the information in a data storage device in a practice known as “skimming.” They may swipe your card for an actual purchase, or attach the device to an ATM machine where you may enter or swipe your card.
•    They may steal your wallet or purse.
•    They may complete a “change of address form” to divert your mail to another location.
•    They may steal personal information they find in your home.
•    They may steal personal information from you through email or phone by posing as legitimate companies and claiming that you have a problem with your account. This practice is known as “phishing” online, or pretexting by phone.

If Your Personal Information Has Been Lost or Stolen

If you’ve lost personal information or identification, or if it has been stolen from you, taking certain steps quickly can minimize the potential for identity theft.

Financial accounts: Close accounts, like credit cards and bank accounts, immediately. When you open new accounts, place passwords on them. Avoid using your mother’s maiden name, your birth date, the last four digits of your Social Security number (SSN) or your phone number, or a series of consecutive numbers.

Social Security number: Call the toll-free fraud number of any of the three nationwide consumer reporting companies and place an initial fraud alert on your credit reports. An alert can help stop someone from opening new credit accounts in your name. See consumer reporting company contact information. For more information about fraud alerts, see the Fraud Alerts box.

Driver’s license/other government-issued identification: Contact the agency that issued the license or other identification document. Follow its procedures to cancel the document and to get a replacement. Ask the agency to flag your file so that no one else can get a license or any other identification document from them in your name.

Once you’ve taken these precautions, watch for signs that your information is being misused. In other words, STAY ALERT.

If your information has been misused, file a report about the theft with the police, and file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, as well. If another crime was committed for example, if your purse or wallet was stolen or your house or car was broken into report it to the police immediately.

–Carol Mathis, RHU, is president of  Choices LLC, a company that provides a variety of specialty insurance benefits.

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