Identity theft has become the single largest and fastest-growing crime in the United States. In 2009 alone, it claimed 11.4 million victims (an increase of 37 percent over 2007) and cost consumers $54 billion, an average of $4,841 per victim.
Identity theft occurs when a thief steals key pieces of personal identifying information – which may include your name, address, date of birth, Social Security number or your mother’s maiden name – to gain access to your personal financial accounts. Armed with this information, they can open a new credit or financial account, buy a car or apply for a loan. They can also rent an apartment or establish cell phone service in the victim’s name. Here are a few methods commonly used to steal your personal information.
Dumpster Diving. Thieves may rummage through trash looking for bills or other papers that contain personal information.
Skimming. Your credit/debit card numbers can be scanned using a small electronic device as your card is being processed. Or, the thief may just write it down on a piece of paper.
Shoulder Surfing. At the checkout counter, a thief may stand behind you and closely watch as you enter your PIN number.
Phishing. Hackers may pretend to be legitimate financial institutions and send you spam or pop-up messages to get you to reveal information such as passwords or account numbers.
Change of Address. A thief may fill out a “change of address” form, directing your future billing statements to an address of their choice.
Common Thievery. Thieves may steal purses or wallets; mail, including bank and credit card statements; new checks; and tax information. At work, they may steal personnel records or bribe employees who have access to your information.
Here are some tips that can help you from becoming a victim:
• Destroy or shred pre-approved credit offers that you don’t use. Also, shred any personal identifying documents, prescriptions, pay stubs, insurance policies, etc., before discarding them.
• Remove your name from the pre-approved, unsolicited credit card and insurance mailing lists by calling (1-888-567-8688).
• Use a P.O. Box to limit the risk of stolen mail. Don’t leave outgoing checks in your residential mailbox. Deposit your outgoing bill payments in a USPS collection box or pay electronically.
• Be careful who you give your personal info to over the phone (or Internet), and never give out your Social Security number, PIN numbers or passwords.
• On the back of your credit cards, write with a black marker near your signature, “check photo ID.” This is an effective way to get cashiers to further verify the purchaser.
• Do not have your Social Security or driver’s license number printed on your checks. Also, never carry your Social Security number with you.
• Keep information for your credit and bank accounts in a secure place, such as a lock box. Review your accounts on a regular basis and watch for any suspicious activity.
• Use security software for your computer and only shop at reputable or trusted sites.
• Be careful who has access to your computer, especially a laptop; protect it with a unique code and password.
• Change your passwords on a regular basis and ensure they are hard to “guess” by including a series of numbers and letters – especially for online banking and shopping sites.
What to do if you become a victim:
If your credit cards or checks are lost or stolen, or your identity is compromised in any way, notify your creditors and bank immediately. Also, in the case of an actual theft, file a police report so that creditors will have proof of the crime.
Call one of the following credit bureaus and have a “Fraud Alert” placed on your account so that you will be alerted before a credit report is issued about you. This will help prevent further fraudulent activity. It is necessary to call only one of these bureaus, as they will contact the other two. TransUnion, (800) 680-7289; Equifax, (800) 525-6285; Experian, (888) 397-3742.
Upon your request, you are entitled to a free credit report every 12 months from each of the three major credit bureaus. Review your credit report on a regular basis by staggering them, one from each bureau every four months. Look for any errors, forgotten debits or other suspicious activity. Order your free report online at www.AnnualCreditReport.com. Make sure you are at the legitimate website, as there are many offering “free credit reports” for a fee.
Being proactive in protecting your personal identity may help you avoid becoming another “identity theft victim.”