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Identity theft

Identity theft: the unauthorized possession of one's personal identification and information and the use of this information to fraudulently conduct business and other affairs including obtaining credit or funds. During 2004, 9.3 million American adults became victims of identity theft, according to the Better Business Bureau.

Identity thieves will open new accounts in other people's names and rack up debts on existing accounts. To do this, these thieves may use consumers' Social Security numbers, bank account information, addresses, or phone numbers. Some consumers have been denied jobs or insurance or have been arrested for crimes they did not commit--all because their identity was stolen.

Review the topics to the left to see how you can prevent identity theft and what to do if you become a victim.

How can your identity be stolen
Thieves use a variety of methods to gain access to your personal information including:

1. stealing your wallet or purse containing your indentification, credit, and bank cards.

2. stealing your mail, including your bank and credit card statements, pre-approved credit offers, and tax information. Also stealing your garbage and looking for discarded information.

3. fraudulently obtaining your credit report by posing as a landlord or employer.

4. buying your personal information from "inside" sources. For example, an identity thief may pay a store, restaurant, or hotel employee for information about you.

5. taking information about you from the internet.

Take steps to help prevent identity theft
While we cannot prevent identity theft entirely, the Better Business Bureau, along with many other financial institutions have some tips to minimize our risks:

1. before revealing any personal information, find out how it will be used and whether it will be shared with others.

2. pay attention to your billing cycles. Contact your creditors immediately if your bill does not show up on time.

3. minimize the number of credit cards you carry; only carry the ones you need.

4. guard your mail from theft. Deposit outgoing mail in post office collection boxes or at your local post office.

5. keep items with personal information in a safe place. Shred or tear up your charge receipts, copies of credit applications, insurance forms, bank checks, and statements that you are discarding, expired charge cards, and credit offers you get in the mail.

6. do not carry your Social Security card; leave it in a secure place. Give out your Social Security number only when absolutely necessary. Ask to use other forms of identification when possible.

7. order a copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus at least once a year. Review the reports to make sure they are accurate and include only the activities you have authorized.

8. don't be a victim of "phishing" which is when thieves send e-mails that look as if they come from legitimate companies requesting certain personal information. Never provide personal information such as Social Security, credit card, and bank account numbers or user names and passwords to these e-mails. Be very suspicious of e-mail that was sent to you unsolicited.

9. if you are shopping on-line, make sure the site is secure. Sites that have technology to secure transactions will have "https" instead of "http" in their web address on the page that asks for credit information. Another way to tell if the site is secure is if you see an icon of a locked padlock which is usually at the bottom of the screen.

10. write "check photo ID" in ink on the back of your credit cards near your signature. This will alert the store clerk to check the credit card against your photo id.

11. if you still use your Social Security number as your driver's license number, get it changed to a generic number.

12. be careful to protect yourself while shopping in malls and stores. Do not leave purses or wallets unattended or in easy places on your person to pick. Watch for people standing nearby with a cell phone with a camera. With camera cell phones available now, someone can easily take a clear picture of the information on your credit card.

13. immediately open your credit card statements and check for unfamiliar purchases. Keep your credit card receipts in one place and cross check them against your monthly statement. Shred the statement and receipts when you are through with them.

14. don't give out information to companies that should already have that information. For example, your bank should never call you asking for your checking account number. They have that information.  

Things to do when you think you have been a victim of identity theft

1. If you feel that there is a chance that your credit or bank accounts may be compromised, contact one of the three major credit bureaus. Previously, you had to contact all three credit bureaus, but now you only need to call one to place a fraud alert on all three reports.

A fraud alert is supposed to result in creditors contacting you before opening any new accounts or making any changes to your existing accounts.

2. Close your accounts but notify the lender or bank that your account numbers have been compromised and that you would like a new account. If you have any problems doing this, change banks.

3. File a police report. Get a copy of the report to submit to your creditors.

4. File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC keeps records of identity theft cases used by law enforcement for investigations.

Review the steps to prevent identity theft to avoid any additional problems in the future.

Related web sites

Better Business Bureau/BBBOnline
4200 Wilson Blvd.
8th Floor
Arlington, VA 22203

The Federal Trade Commission

Fight Identity Theft

Identity Theft Resource Center

National Consumer League's National Fraud Information Center
Fraud hotline: 800-876-7060

Privacy Rights Clearinghouse

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