Minimizing Your Risk of Identity Theft
THE FBI CALLS identity theft one of the fastest growing crimes in the United States and estimates that 500,000 to 700,000 Americans become identity theft victims each year.
Identity theft is a federal crime. It occurs when one person’s identification (which can include name, social security number, or any account number) is used or transferred by another person for unlawful activities.
How can someone steal my identity?
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.
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.
How can I minimize my risk?
Place passwords on your credit card, bank, and phone accounts. Avoid using easily available information like your mother's maiden name, your birth date, the last four digits of your Social Security number or your phone number, or a series of consecutive numbers. When opening new accounts, you may find that many businesses still have a line on their applications for your mother's maiden name. Ask if you can use a password instead.
Secure personal information in your home, especially if you have roommates, employ outside help, or are having work done in your home.
Ask about information security procedures in your workplace or at businesses, doctor's offices or other institutions that collect your personally identifying information. Find out who has access to your personal information and verify that it is handled securely. Ask about the disposal procedures for those records as well. Find out if your information will be shared with anyone else. If so, ask how your information can be kept confidential.
Don't give out personal information on the phone, through the mail, or on the Internet unless you've initiated the contact or are sure you know who you're dealing with. Identity thieves are clever, and have posed as representatives of banks, Internet service providers (ISPs), and even government agencies to get people to reveal their Social Security number, mother's maiden name, account numbers, and other identifying information.
Before you share any personal information, confirm that you are dealing with a legitimate organization. Check an organization's website by typing its URL in the address line, rather than cutting and pasting it. Many companies post scam alerts when their name is used improperly. Or call customer service using the number listed on your account statement or in the telephone book.
Treat your mail and trash carefully.
Deposit your outgoing mail in post office collection boxes or at your local post office, rather than in an unsecured mailbox. Promptly remove mail from your mailbox. If you're planning to be away from home and can't pick up your mail, call the U.S. Postal Service at 1-800-275-8777 to request a vacation hold. The Postal Service will hold your mail at your local post office until you can pick it up or are home to receive it.
To thwart an identity thief who may pick through your trash or recycling bins to capture your personal information, tear or shred your charge receipts, copies of credit applications, insurance forms, physician statements, checks and bank statements, expired charge cards that you're discarding, and credit offers you get in the mail. To opt out of receiving offers of credit in the mail, call: 1-888-5-OPTOUT (1-888-567-8688). The three nationwide consumer reporting companies use the same toll-free number to let consumers choose not to receive credit offers based on their lists. Note: You will be asked to provide your Social Security number which the consumer reporting companies need to match you with your file.
Don't carry your Social Security number card; leave it in a secure place.
Give your Social Security number only when absolutely necessary, and ask to use other types of identifiers. If your state uses your Social Security number as your driver's license number, ask to substitute another number. Do the same if your health insurance company uses your Social Security number as your policy number.
Carry only the identification information and the credit and debit cards that you'll actually need when you go out.
Be cautious when responding to promotions. Identity thieves may create phony promotional offers to get you to give them your personal information.
Keep your purse or wallet in a safe place at work; do the same with copies of administrative forms that have your sensitive personal information.
When ordering new checks, pick them up from the bank instead of having them mailed to your home mailbox.
When should I give out my Social Security number?
Your employer and financial institutions will need your Social Security number for wage and tax reporting purposes. Other businesses may ask you for your Social Security number to do a credit check if you are applying for a loan, renting an apartment, or signing up for utilities. Sometimes, however, they simply want your Social Security number for general record keeping. If someone asks for your Social Security number, ask:
Why do you need my Social Security number?
How will my Social Security number be used?
How do you protect my Social Security number from being stolen?
What will happen if I don't give you my Social Security number?
If you don't provide your Social Security number, some businesses may not provide you with the service or benefit you want. Getting satisfactory answers to these questions will help you decide whether you want to share your Social Security number with the business. The decision to share is yours.
What should I do if my 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 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.
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 have taken these precautions, watch for signs that your information is being misused.
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.
If you believe you have been the victim of identity theft, within the U.S.A., you may use this form to send a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
For further reading:
• Securing Your Computer Online and Offline
Tips on how to ensure your personal computer safety online and offline, as well as guarding your personal and sensitive information from internet pirates.
• Protect Yourself From Internet Pirates
Learn how to protect yourself from internet fraud, or phishing. Safeguard your account numbers, passwords, and other confidential information.
• Shopping Online Safely
Shopping online offers lots of benefits that you won't find shopping in a store or by mail. Ensure that your online shopping experience is a safe one.