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 — low- and hi-tech — to gain access to your data. Here are some of the ways imposters can get your personal information and take over your identity.
How identity thieves get your personal information:
• They steal wallets and purses containing your identification and credit and bank cards.
• They steal your mail, including your bank and credit card statements, pre-approved credit offers, new checks, and tax information.
• They complete a “change of address form” to divert your mail to another location.
• They rummage through your trash, or the trash of businesses, for personal data in a practice known as “dumpster diving.”
• They fraudulently obtain your credit report by posing as a landlord, employer
or someone else who may have a legitimate need for, and legal right to, the information.
• They find personal information in your home.
• They use personal information you share on the Internet.
• They scam you, often through email, by posing as legitimate companies or government agencies you do business with.
• They get your information from the workplace in a practice known as “business record theft” by: stealing files out of offices where you’re a customer, employee, patient or student; bribing an employee who has access to your files; or “hacking” into electronic files.
How identity thieves use your personal information:
• They 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. Because your bills are being sent to the new address, it may take some time before you realize there’s a problem.
• They open a new credit card account, using your name, date of birth and SSN. When they use the credit card and don’t pay the bills, the delinquent account is reported on your credit report.
• They establish phone or wireless service in your name.
• They open a bank account in your name and write bad checks on that account.
• They file for bankruptcy under your name to avoid paying debts they’ve incurred under your name, or to avoid eviction.
• They counterfeit checks or debit cards, and drain your bank account.
• They buy cars by taking out auto loans in your name.
• They give your name to the police during an arrest. If they’re released from police custody, but don’t show up for their court date, an arrest warrant is issued in your name.
Minimize Your Risk
I’m tired of the hours I’ve spent on the phone and all the faxing I’ve had to do. When will it be over?
From a consumer complaint to the FTC, March 13, 2001
Tomorrow is Sunday so we won’t get any notices, but I’m not looking forward to Monday’s mail.
From a consumer complaint to the FTC, November 13, 2001
While you probably can’t prevent identity theft entirely, you can minimize your risk. By managing your personal information wisely, cautiously and with an awareness of the issue, you can help guard against identity theft.
What You Can Do Today
• Order a copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus. Your credit report contains information on where you work and live, the credit accounts that have been opened in your name, how you pay your bills and whether you’ve been sued, arrested or filed for bankruptcy. Make sure it’s accurate and includes only those activities you’ve authorized. By law, credit bureaus can charge you no more than $9 for a copy of your credit report. See “Credit Reports,” below, for details about removing fraudulent and inaccurate information from your credit report.
• Place 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 SSN or your phone number, or a series of consecutive numbers. When opening new accounts, you may find that many businesses still have a line on their applications for your mother’s maiden name. Use a password instead.
• Secure personal information in your home, especially if you have roommates, employ outside help or are having service work done in your home.
• Ask about information security procedures in your workplace. Find out who has access to your personal information and verify that records are kept in a secure location. Ask about the disposal procedures for those records as well.
Equifax — www.equifax.com
To order your report, call: 800-685-1111
To report fraud, call: 800-525-6285/
TDD 800-255-0056 and write:
P.O. Box 740241, Atlanta, GA 30374-0241
Experian — www.experian.com
To order your report, call: 888-EXPERIAN (397-3742)
To report fraud, call: 888-EXPERIAN (397-3742)/
TDD 800-972-0322 and write:
P.O. Box 9532, Allen TX 75013
TransUnion — www.transunion.com
To order your report, call: 800-888-4213
To report fraud, call: 800-680-7289/
TDD 877-553-7803; fax: 714-447-6034; email: [email protected] or write: Fraud Victim Assistance Department, P.O. Box 6790, Fullerton, CA 92634-6790
• Order a copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus once a year. By checking your report on a regular basis you can catch mistakes and fraud before they wreak havoc on your personal finances. Don’t underestimate the importance of this step. One of the most common ways that consumers find out that they’re victims of identity theft is when they try to make a major purchase, like a house or a car. The deal can be lost or delayed while the credit report mess is straightened out. Knowing what’s in your credit report allows you to fix problems before they jeopardize a major financial transaction.
• Don’t give out personal information on the phone, through the mail or over the Internet unless you’ve initiated the contact or are sure you know who you’re dealing with. Identity thieves may pose as representatives of banks, Internet service providers (ISPs) and even government agencies to get you to reveal your SSN, mother’s maiden name, account numbers and other identifying information. Before you share any personal information, confirm that you are dealing with a legitimate organization. You can check the organization’s Web site as many companies post scam alerts when their name is used improperly, or you can call customer service using the number listed on your account statement or in the telephone book.
• Guard your mail and trash from theft.
Deposit outgoing mail in post office collection boxes or at your local post office, rather than in an unsecured mailbox. Promptly remove mail from your mailbox. If you’re planning to be away from home and can’t pick up your mail, call the U.S. Postal Service at 1-800-275-8777 to request a vacation hold. The Postal Service will hold your mail at your local post office until you can pick it up or are home to receive it.
To thwart an identity thief who may pick through your trash or recycling bins to capture your personal information, tear or shred your charge receipts, copies of credit applications, insurance forms, physician statements, checks and bank statements, expired charge cards that you’re discarding, and credit offers you get in the mail.
• Before revealing any personally identifying information (for example, on an application), find out how it will be used and secured, and whether it will be shared with others. Ask if you have a choice about the use of your information. Can you choose to have it kept confidential?
• Don’t carry your SSN card; leave it in a secure place.
• Give your SSN only when absolutely necessary. Ask to use other types of identifiers when possible. If your state uses your SSN as your driver’s license number, ask to substitute another number.
• Carry only the identification information and the number of credit and debit cards that you’ll actually need.
• 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 account and changed your billing address to cover his tracks.
• Be wary of promotional scams. Identity thieves may use phony offers to get you to give them your personal information.
• Keep your purse or wallet in a safe place at work.
A SPECIAL WORD ABOUT SOCIAL SECURITY NUMBERS
Your employer and financial institution will likely need your SSN for wage and tax reporting purposes. Other businesses may ask you for your SSN to do a credit check, like when you apply for a loan, rent an apartment, or sign up for utilities. Sometimes, however, they simply want your SSN for general record keeping. You don’t have to give a business your SSN just because they ask for it. If someone asks for your SSN, ask the following questions:
• Why do you need my SSN?
• How will my SSN be used?
• What law requires me to give you my SSN?
• What will happen if I don’t give you my SSN?
Sometimes a business may not provide you with the service or benefit you’re seeking if you don’t provide your SSN. Getting answers to these questions will help you decide whether you want to share your SSN with the business. Remember — the decision is yours.