Identity theft occurs when an unauthorized person acquires some of your personal information (bank/credit card numbers, social security number, name, address, telephone number, etc.) and uses that information to commit theft or fraud.
The Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act of 1998 makes it a federal crime when someone "knowingly transfers or uses, without lawful authority, a means of identification of another person with the intent to commit, or to aid or abet, any unlawful activity that constitutes a violation of federal law, or that constitutes a felony under any applicable state or local law."
Identity theives may use a variety of methods to secure personal information from another person. These include:
- Theft of wallets or purses containing identification and bank/credit cards.
- Theft of mail matter.
- Completing a change of address form at the post office to redirect your mail.
- Searching trash for your personal or business information.
- Obtaining your credit report fraudulently.
- Utilizing personal information you share on the internet.
- Buying your personal information from authorized persons. Example: Paying a gas station attendant for your credit card number.
Identity theives take this information and use it in a variety of ways:
- They call your credit card company and request a change of address on your credit card account. He/She then charges your credit cards to the limit. Because your bills are being sent to a new address, this delays the detection of the fraud.
- They open new credit card accounts using your information. He/She then charges your credit cards to the limit and never pays the bill. The account is then reported on your credit report.
- They establish phone or wireless service in your name.
- They counterfeit checks or debit cards and empty your bank account.
- They obtain auto or personal loans in your name.
- If arrested, they give your information to the police. When they do not show up for court, an arrest warrant is issued in your name.
You can protect yourself from identity theft by managing your personal information carefully and by taking the following precautions:
- Check your credit report through the 3 major credit bureaus once a year.
- Know your credit card billing cycles. If a bill does not arrive on time, contact your credit card company.
- Do not give personal information over the phone, through the mail, or on the internet unless you know the person or business you are dealing with is legitimate.
- Place passwords on your credit card, bank account, and phone accounts. Avoid easily available information such as the last 4 digits of your social security number, birth dates, and anniversary dates.
- Secure personal information in your home.
- Carry only the indefication and amount of credit cards you actually need.
- Do not carry your social security card. Secure it in your home or safe-deposit box.
- Deposit outgoing mail in a post office collection box, not your home mailbox. If you are planning to be away from home, have a friend pick up your mail, or contact your local post office to request a vacation hold.
- Shred all papers that have personal information prior to throwing them away.
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission has set out the following steps to take if you suspect you are a victim of identity theft:
- Contact the fraud departments of each of the three major credit bureaus, report the theft, ask that a "fraud alert" be placed on their file and that no new credit be granted without their approval.
- For any accounts that have been fraudulently accessed or opened, contact the security departments of the appropriate creditors or financial institutions. Close these accounts. Put passwords (not mother's maiden name or social security number) on any new accounts they open.
- File a report with the local police or the police where the identity theft took place. Get the reort number or a copy of the report in case the bank, credit card company, or others need proof of the crime later.
- Call the ID Theft Clearinghouse toll free at 1-877-ID-THEFT (1-877-438-4338) to report the theft. Counselors will take your complaint and advise you how to deal with the credit-related problems that could result from identity theft.
Credit Bureau Phone Numbers:
- Equifax: 1-800-525-6285
- Experian: 1-888-397-3742
- Trans Union: 1-800-688-7289