What is Identity Theft?
Identity theft occurs when thieves steal your personal information, such as:
- Social Security Number (SSN)
- Birth date
- Credit card numbers
With sufficient information, another person can become you and use your information to commit fraud or other crimes.
Identity theft is a serious problem. Despite the efforts of law enforcement, identity theft is becoming more sophisticated and the number of new victims is growing. If the crime is not detected early, you may face months or years cleaning up the damage to your reputation and credit rating. You may even lose out on loans, jobs, and other opportunities.
Common Forms of Identity Theft
Phishing, pharming, and skimming are common forms of identity theft that you should be aware of.
Never provide bank, credit card, or other sensitive information when visiting a website that doesn't explain how your personal information would be protected, including its use of “encryption” to safely transmit and store data.
Be on guard against incoming emails claiming to be from a trusted source—perhaps a bank, another company you know, or even a government agency—asking you to “update” or “confirm” personal information. Reputable organizations won't contact you to verify account information online because they already have it.
Phishing is when criminals send out unsolicited emails that appear to be from a legitimate source such as your bank, utility company, well-known merchants, your Internet service provider, or even a trusted government agency like the FDIC. Phishing emails attempt to trick you into divulging personal information.
Pharming is similar to email phishing. Criminals seek to obtain personal or private information by making fake websites appear legitimate. In some cases, your browser will even show that you are at the correct website. This makes pharming more difficult to detect than phishing.
Skimming is when criminals steal credit or debit card numbers by using a special storage device when processing your card. Watch for odd devices attached over the card slots of ATM machines for "skimming" or gathering information from the magnetic strip on the back of the card.
How to Avoid Identity Theft
Here are some steps you can take to avoid identity theft:
- Always protect your SSN, credit card and debit card numbers, personal identification numbers (PINs), passwords, and other personal information. Never provide this information in response to an unwanted phone call, fax, letter, or email, no matter how friendly or official the circumstances may appear. Be mindful of those who may be shoulder surfing (or trying to look over your shoulder) while you use the ATM, and seeking to steal your PIN. In case your wallet is lost or stolen, carry only the personal information you really need: checks, credit cards, or debit cards. Keep the rest, including your Social Security card, in a safe place. Do not preprint your SSN, phone number, or driver’s license number on your checks. You have the right to refuse requests for your SSN from merchants. Ask the merchant to use another form of identification that does not include your SSN (like a passport) and have your driver’s license number changed.
- Protect your incoming and outgoing mail. For incoming mail: Try to use a locked mailbox or other secure location (for example, a post office box). If your mailbox is not locked or in a secure location, try to promptly remove mail that has been delivered or move the mailbox to a safer place. When ordering new checks, ask about having the checks delivered to your bank branch instead of having them mailed to your home where you run the risk of a thief finding them outside your front door.
For outgoing mail containing a check or personal information: Try to deposit it in a United States (U.S.) Postal Service blue collection box, hand it to a mail carrier, or take it to the post office instead of leaving it in your doorway or home mailbox. A mailbox that holds your outgoing bills is a prime target for thieves who cruise neighborhoods looking for account information. Avoid putting up the flag on a mailbox to indicate that outgoing mail is waiting.
- Sign up for direct deposit. Sign up for direct deposit of your paycheck or state or federal benefits, (like, Social Security). Direct deposit prevents someone from stealing a check out of your mailbox and forging your signature to access your money. It is also beneficial in the event of a natural disaster.
- Keep your financial trash “clean”. Thieves known as dumpster divers pick through garbage looking for pieces of paper containing SSNs, bank account information, and other details they can use to commit fraud. What is your best protection against dumpster divers? Before tossing out these items, destroy them, preferably using a crosscut shredder that turns paper into confetti that cannot be easily reconstructed.
- Keep a close watch on your bank account statements and credit card bills. Monitor these statements each month and contact your financial institution immediately if there is a discrepancy in your records or if you notice something suspicious (for example, a missing payment or an unauthorized withdrawal). Contact your institution if a bank statement or credit card bill does not arrive on time. Missing financially related mail could be a sign someone has stolen your mail and/or account information, and may have changed your mailing address to run up big bills in your name from another location.
- Avoid identity theft on the Internet. Never provide bank account or other personal information in response to an unsolicited email, or when visiting a website that does not explain how personal information will be protected. Legitimate organizations would not ask you for these details because they already have the necessary information, or can obtain it in other ways. If you believe the email is fraudulent, consider bringing it to the attention of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). If you do open and respond to a phony email, contact your financial institution immediately. For more about avoiding phishing scams, or to obtain a brochure with tips on avoiding identity theft, visit www.fdic.gov.
Take precautions with your personal computer (PC). For example, install a free or low-cost firewall to stop intruders from gaining remote access to your PC. Download and frequently update security patches offered by your operating system and software vendors to correct weaknesses that a hacker might exploit. Use passwords that will be hard for hackers to guess. For example, use a mix of numbers, symbols, and letters instead of easily guessed words. Also, shut down your PC when you are not using it. For practical tips to help you guard against Internet fraud, secure your computer, and protect your personal information, visit www.OnGuardOnline.gov.
- Review your credit record annually and report fraudulent activity. Review your credit report carefully for warning signs of actual or potential identity theft (for example, items that include mention of a credit card, loan, or lease you never signed up for, and requests for a copy of your credit record from someone you do not recognize), which could be a sign that a con artist is snooping around for personal information. Learn more by visiting the FTC at www.ftc.gov/credit.
- Get more information. Visit the FTC website at www.IdentityTheft.gov or call 1-877-IDTHEFT (438-4338).
What to Do if Your Wallet or Purse is Lost or Stolen
Your wallet or purse may contain your driver’s license, ATM card, credit cards, personal checks, and other items that can be used by thieves to steal your identity. If your wallet or purse is lost or stolen, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) suggests you take these steps to prevent identity theft.
- Call your bank(s) right away. Immediately call your bank (to report a lost debit/ATM card) and your credit card companies. And if you spot an unauthorized charge on your credit card, you must follow up on any phone calls to your card issuer with a letter disputing the transaction.
- File a police report. File a report with the police as soon as possible. Keep a copy of the report in case your bank or insurance company needs proof of the crime.
- Place a fraud alert. Place a fraud alert on your credit report by calling any of the major credit reporting agencies:
- Equifax: 1-800-525-6285
- TransUnion: 1-800-680-7289
- Experian: 1-888-397-3742
This warning will caution credit grantors to check with you before approving new loans or cards in your name.
- Contact the major check verification companies. Contact the major check verification companies to request that they notify all stores that use their databases to not accept your lost checks. You can also ask your bank to notify the check verification service with which it does business. Two of the check verification companies that accept reports of check fraud directly from consumers are:
- TeleCheck: 1-800-366-2425
- Certegy: 1-800-437-5120
- Request a new Debit/ATM card. Request a new Debit/ATM card with a new number and PIN.
What to Do If You Suspect You are a Victim of Identity Theft
If you believe you are a victim of identity theft, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recommends you immediately take the following actions:
- File a report with your local police. Get a copy of the police report so you have proof of the crime.
- Contact your creditors about any accounts that have been changed or opened fraudulently. Ask to speak with someone in the security or fraud department.
- Follow up in writing and include copies of supporting documents.
- Keep records of your conversations and all correspondence.
- Use the Identity Theft Affidavit at identitytheft.gov to support your written statement.
- File a complaint with the FTC using the online complaint form (reportfraud.ftc.gov) or call the FTC Identity Theft Hotline.
- Ask for verification that the disputed account has been closed and the fraudulent debts discharged.
- Call the FTC’s Identity Theft Hotline at 1-877-IDTHEFT (438-4338) or visit identitytheft.gov.
If you suspect you have been a victim of identity theft or think you are about to be (for example, if your wallet is stolen):
- Contact the fraud department of any of the three major credit reporting agencies. The agency you call is required to notify the other two credit agencies. Tell them you are an identity theft victim (or potential victim).
- You have the right to place an initial fraud alert in your credit file. You can do this by calling, writing, or visiting any of the three credit agencies online. This initial fraud alert will last for 90 days.
If you know you are a victim of identity theft, you may have an extended fraud alert placed in your credit file.
- The extended fraud alert requires a lender to contact you and get your approval before authorizing any new account in your name.
- The fraud alert is effective for seven years.
- To place an extended alert in your credit file, submit your request in writing and include a copy of an identity theft report filed with a law enforcement agency (for example, the police) or with the U.S. Postal Inspector.
You can get a free copy of your credit report if you ask when you place a fraud alert on your file. Active-duty military personnel have the right to place an alert in their credit files so that lenders acting on loan applications can guard against possible identity theft.
Many states have laws that allow you to place a security freeze on your credit file.
- A security freeze restricts potential creditors and third parties from accessing your credit report unless you authorize the release of the security freeze.
- Be aware that using a security freeze to restrict access to your credit report may delay, interfere with, or prohibit the timely approval of any subsequent request or application for credit.
- State laws vary, and there may be a charge to freeze and unfreeze a credit file. The cost of placing, temporarily lifting, and removing a credit freeze also varies. Many states make credit freezes free for identity theft victims, while in other states consumers must pay a fee, typically $10. For more information please visit: ftc.gov.