Identity theft has become a major concern to law enforcement throughout the United States. It is the fastest growing crime and affects more than 500,000 new victims each year. We’ve all heard horror stories about fraud that’s committed on us in stealing a name, address, Social Security number, credit cards, etc. Here’s some critical information to limit the damage in case this happens to you or someone you know.

Identity theft, or identity fraud, is the taking of a victim’s identity to obtain credit cards from banks and retailers, steal money from a victim’s existing account(s), apply for loans, establish accounts with utility companies, rent an apartment, file bankruptcy, or obtain a job. Thousands of dollars can be stolen by these methods without the victim becoming aware of the problem for months or even years.

The imposter obtains the victim’s social security card number, date of birth, and other identification data such as his or her address and phone number. Armed with this information, the thief can obtain a fictitious driver’s license, apply for instant credit, or pose as the victim through mail transactions. Often the criminal will claim that he or she had just moved, and will provide a different address. All of this information is in the victim’s name. Once the first account is opened, credit is used to the limit, and funds are drained from all possible sources.

The identity thief can get a victim’s information from a variety of sources. Some of these include the victim’s doctor, lawyer, school, health insurance carrier, and many other places including a home mailbox. These thieves are known to even go through trash to locate any document that may have been thrown away such as a utility bill, credit card slip, or especially a credit card offer that only requires a phone call or reply to open an account.

Tips for Self Protection

The National Crime Prevention Council advises that you consider the following points to ensure that this does not happen to you:

  • Never give out personal information over the phone, through the mail, or over the Internet unless you are the one that initiated the contact and are aware of the party that you are dealing with. Be cautious of those posing as bank representatives, credit card company personnel, and even governmental officials that are seeking this personal information from you. It never hurts to get their number to verify validity and call them back.
  • Obtain and use a paper shredder. Make sure that you use it on any personal document that you would normally place into your trash
  • Avoid using your mother’s maiden name, your date of birth, social security number, or a similar series of numbers as any form of a password. These identifying factors can easily be obtained from records and used against you.
  • Never carry your social security card, passport, birth certificate, or other identifying papers unless it is absolutely necessary. Also, limit the amount of credit cards that you possess at any given time.
  • The next time you order checks have only your initials (instead of first name) and last name put on them. If someone takes your check book they will not know if you sign your checks with just your initials or your first name, but your bank will know how you sign your checks.
  • Place the contents of your wallet on a photocopy machine, do both sides of each license, credit card, etc. You will know what you had in your wallet and all of the account numbers and phone numbers to call and cancel. Keep the photocopy in a safe place. Also make and carry a photocopy of your passport when you travel either here or abroad.
  • Never put your social security card number on checks or credit card receipts. If the business requests your social security card number, give them an alternate number and explain the reason. If a government agency requests your social security card number, there must be a privacy notice accompanying the request.
  • Avoid putting telephone numbers on checks. Put your work phone number on your checks instead of your home phone. If you have a PO Box, use that instead of your home address. If you do not have a PO Box, use your work address. Never have your Social Security number printed on your checks — you can add it if it is necessary. But if you have it printed, anyone can get it. You should report seeing anyone in someone else’s mailbox since this is how Identity Theft happens.
  • Be careful when you use ATM and phone cards. Someone may be looking over your shoulder to get your PIN, and ultimately be able to gain access to your account.
  • Make a list of all of your credit card account numbers and bank account numbers with the customer service number available for each one, and store this list in a safe place.
  • When you order a new credit card, or are due to receive a replacement for an expired card, watch the calendar to make sure that you get the card(s) within a reasonable amount of time. If the card does not arrive when expected, call the credit card grantor immediately to find out if the card had been sent, and make sure that the address was not changed to another location.
  • Do not put your credit card number on the Internet unless it has been encrypted on a secure site.
  • Pay attention to your billing cycles. Follow up with the creditor if a bill does not arrive on time.
  • A missing credit card bill could indicate that a thief that has changed the address on the account and is using your identity.
  • Consider canceling all credit cards that you have not used in the past six months. Open credit is a prime target.

We have been told we should cancel our stolen credit cards immediately. But the key is having the toll free numbers and your card numbers handy so you know whom to call. Keep those where you can find them easily.

Order your credit report at least twice a year. Reports should be obtained from all three major sources. These are:

  • Equifax at (800) 685-1111<
  • Experian at (888) EXPERIAN (397-3742)
  • TransUnion at (800) 680-7293

Correct all mistakes on your credit report in writing. Send letters with a request to be notified of receipt of the corrections. Identify the problem item by item and send with a copy of the credit report back to the credit-reporting agency. You should hear from the agency within 30 days.

To have your name taken off of direct mail lists, write to the Direct Marketing Association, Mail preference Service, PO Box 9008, Farmingdale, NY 11735.

If you are a victim of identity theft

  • File a police report immediately in the jurisdiction where the items were stolen, this proves to credit providers you were diligent, and is a first step toward an investigation (if there ever is one).
  • But here’s what is perhaps most important; call the three national credit reporting organizations immediately to place a fraud alert on your name and Social Security number. The alert means any company that checks your credit knows your information was stolen and they have to contact you by phone to authorize new credit.