So you think you’re doing a good job of protecting your personal information? Take a closer look. Did you write a check recently, did you order a gift from a catalog over the telephone, did you make a purchase on the Internet, or did you look at your mail and throw away all of the junk? Chances are you probably did many of these things without giving them a second thought. Guess what: Each one of them gave an “identity thief” a chance to steal your good name.
The Federal Trade Commission reports that complaints about ID theft doubled in 2002, representing 43 percent of the complaints filed with the FTC. And at the end of last year, what is believed to be the largest identity theft case in history made the news with over 30,000 victims. They had their credit histories stolen without their knowledge.
What happens when the theft occurs? Often, the identity thief will open a credit card in your name and ring up thousands of dollars of charges. Although you may not be able to prevent identity theft from occurring altogether, there are ways to minimize your risk by managing your personal information wisely.
How does identity theft occur?
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, both low- and high-tech, to gain access to your data. The oldest and most common method is to steal your wallet or purse containing your identification, credit and bank cards. In addition, thieves steal your mail, especially your bank and credit card statements, “pre-approved credit” offers, telephone calling cards and tax information.
Another interesting tactic is to complete a “change of address form” to divert your mail to another location. Other thieves rummage through your trash, looking for your personal data in a practice known as “dumpster diving.” Finally, some thieves get your information from business or personnel records at work, and they use personal information you share on the Internet.
What thieves do with this information
Often the thief will open a new credit card account, using your name, date of birth and social security number. When they use the credit card and don’t pay the bills, the delinquent account is reported on your credit report. They also call your credit card issuer and, pretending to be you, ask to change the mailing address on your credit card account. The imposter then runs up charges on your account, and because your bills are being sent to a new address, it may take months before you realize there is a problem. Thieves may also open a bank account in your name and write bad checks on that account. In addition, they counterfeit checks or debit cards and drain your bank account.
How to minimize your risk of having your identity stolen
By managing your personal information wisely, cautiously and with an awareness of the issue, you can help guard against identity theft. Here are some tips for minimizing your risk:
1. Don’t give out personal information to strangers. An inquiry might come on the phone, through the mail or over the Internet, but unless you have initiated the contact or know with whom you are dealing, don’t give out any information. Identity thieves may pose as representatives of banks, Internet service providers and even government agencies to get you to reveal important personal information. In addition, find out who has access to your personal information at work and verify that the records are kept in a secure location.
2. Shred personal papers before discarding them. This includes shredding receipts, insurance forms, old checks, bank statements and credit card applications, especially those that are “pre-approved,” before you throw them away so that someone scouring your trash can’t use any information.
3. Don’t carry your social security card. Keep it and other personal and financial information in a secure place, especially if you have roommates or are having work done by outsiders in your home. Give out your social security number only when absolutely necessary. Although it is a common question on various forms (such as when applying for a driver’s license), you often have the option of not providing the information. In addition, consider putting 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.)
4. Pay attention to your billing cycles. Follow up with creditors if your bills don’t arrive on time. A missing credit card bill could mean an identity thief has taken over your credit card account and changed your billing address to cover his tracks.
5. Order a copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit reporting agencies every year. Although there may be a charge for this, it is important to make sure that your credit report is accurate and includes only those activities you have authorized.
What to do if you're a victim of identity theft
First, contact the fraud departments of the three major credit reporting agencies and place a “fraud alert” in your file, as well as a “victim’s statement” that asks creditors to call you before opening new accounts or changing existing ones.
Second, contact the creditors for any accounts that have been tampered with or opened fraudulently. Ask to speak to someone in the security or fraud department of each creditor, and follow up with a letter. Immediately close accounts that have been tampered with and open new ones with new personal identification numbers and passwords.
Note: For new unauthorized accounts that have been opened in your name, find out if the company accepts the ID Theft Affidavit that has been developed by a group of credit grantors, consumer advocates and the FTC. A copy of the affidavit is available on the FTC’s website (www.ftc.gov).
Third, file a report with your local police or the police in the community where the identity theft took place. Get a copy of the police report in case the bank, credit card company or others need proof of the crime. Even if the police can’t catch the identity thief in your case, having a copy of the police report can help you when dealing with creditors.
Fourth, stop payment on any stolen or misused bank checks, and ask check verification companies to notify retailers not to accept those checks.
Finally, take notes. Keep a record of your conversations and copies of your correspondence.
Keeping your personal information safe while using computers
Depending on how you use your computer, an identity thief may be invisible as he steals your personal information. Consider the following to protect yourself when using your computer:
1. Update your virus protection regularly, especially when a new virus alert is announced. Don’t download files sent to you by strangers or click on hyperlinks from people you don’t know.
2. Use a firewall program, especially if you use a high-speed Internet connection like cable, DSL or T-1, which leaves your computer connected to the Internet 24 hours a day. (A firewall will stop uninvited guests and hackers from stealing personal information.)
3. Use a secure browser — software that encrypts or scrambles information you send over the Internet — to guard the security of your online transactions.
4. Try not to store financial information on your personal computer unless absolutely necessary. If you do, use strong passwords to protect the information (don’t use automatic login features).
5. Before disposing of your computer, delete personal information. Use a “wipe” utility program to overwrite the entire hard drive.
6. Review Web site privacy policies. They will tell you how personal information collected will be used.
Where can someone go for help?
If you are a victim of identity theft, you can call the Federal Trade Commission’s Identity Theft Hotline toll free at 1-877-IDTHEFT (1-877-438-4338) or report it online at www.consumer.gov/idtheft. The FTC puts your information into a secure consumer fraud database and may, in appropriate instances, share it with other law enforcement agencies and private entities. While the FTC has no enforcement power, it is collecting information and can supply you with other contacts. To report that someone is using your social security number, call the Social Security Administration Fraud Hotline at 1-800-269-0271.
To report fraud to any of the three major credit bureaus, contact the following:
1. Equifax — www.equifax.com
2. Experian - www.experian.com
3. Trans Union - www.transunion.com
-To remove your name from national direct marketing mail lists, write:
Direct Marketing Association
Mail Preference Service
P.O. Box 643
Carmel, New York 10512
-To avoid unwanted phone calls from many national marketers, send your name, address and telephone number to:
Direct Marketing Association
Telephone Preference Service
P.O. Box 1559
Carmel, New York 10512
-To remove your e-mail address from many national direct e-mail lists, visit: www.dmaconsumers.org/offemaillist.html
Alan Kopit is a consumer attorney with the firm Hahn Loeser and Parks LLP in Cleveland, Ohio and a regular contributor to “Today.”