Identity theft has become one of the most popular crimes in recent years.
This crime affects victims not only financially but emotionally because they have to prove that the actions and transactions were committed by someone else. This can harm the victim for years even if the criminal is behind bars.
The best way to avoid this is through prevention – safeguarding our personal information in such a way that we make it more difficult for criminals to use it for illegal purposes.
Pay heed to the following suggestions:
What is ID Theft and how do you protect yourself?
Identity Theft is one of the fastest growing crimes. It occurs when a dishonest person uses your personal information such as your name, address, date of birth, Social Security number, bank account, or credit card and use them fraudulently. This action is considered legal fraud and is prosecuted under federal law.
People whose identities have been stolen can waste months or years and spend thousands of dollars cleaning up the mess the thieves have inflicted on their credit report and to their reputation. In the meantime, victims may lose job opportunities, their credit applications may be rejected, and they might even be arrested for crimes they did not commit.
How can they obtain your information?
The following are some of the ways identity thieves gain access to your personal information:
• Stealing wallets, purses or your mail (bank statements, pre-approved credit card offers, new check orders, or tax-related correspondence).
• Taking possession of personal information you provide trough unsecured websites, or misappropriating business records, personnel records at work, or personal information at your home.
• Searching for personal information in your trash, the trash of businesses and landfills ("dumpster diving").
• Contacting you by phone or letter and pretending to be someone who legitimately needs you to reveal or "update" your information.
• Using false pretenses to obtain client personal information from financial institutions, telephone companies and other sources.
• Buying personal information from internal sources. For example, an identity thief may pay a store employee for the information you provide on an application for goods, services or credit.
• Stealing the numbers of your credit/debit card by using a data storage device (skimmer) when processing the payment with your card.
• Filling a change of address form so your statements are sent elsewhere.
How to protect yourself?
• Safeguard your Social Security number (SSN), your credit/debit card numbers, PINs, passwords, as well as your other personal information.
• Protect your email with AntiSpyWare and Virus Protection Software.
• Shred all statements and documents containing personal information before throwing them away.
• Check your bank statements as well as your credit card account statements. Be on the lookout for any unusual or irregular activity.
• Do not provide personal information through emails which request it, even in the case of companies that you think you may trust, without first contacting the company.
• Unless you absolutely need it, leave your checkbook at home. If stolen you may lose a lot of money.
• If you do not want to carry your wallet as you finish parking your car, leave it in the trunk and remove IDs and other valuable documents from it before you carry on.
How can I prove that I am a victim of ID Theft?
The applications of the accounts that were opened fraudulently may be valuable in the process of proving that you are a victim of Identity Theft. You can demonstrate to the institutions that the signature on the application is not yours. In turn, this application may contain additional information pertaining to the individual who is using your identity, and these data could be used by law officials investigating the case.
Federal law provides that you may request in writing a copy of the application or other business transaction records relating to your identity theft. Companies can provide you these records free of charge within 30 days after receiving your request and the supporting documentation. You may also authorize any law enforcement agency to obtain such records or request in writing that a copy of the records be sent to a particular officer in charge of law enforcement.
The company may require that you send them proof of your identity, copy of the police report, as well as an affidavit.
Should I get a new Social Security number?
It is possible that under special circumstances, particularly if you are still facing problems after attempting to solve the complications arising as a result of an identity theft, the Social Security Administration will allow you to obtain a new Social Security number.
You cannot get a new Social Security number:
• To avoid the consequences of filing for bankruptcy.
• If you intend to evade the law or your legal responsibility.
• If you lose your Social Security card or it is stolen, but there is no evidence that someone is using your number.
If you decide to apply for a new number, you will need provide proof of your age, citizenship or immigration status, as well as of your identity. You will also need to show that the wrongful use of the card is affecting you.
Note that a new number will probably not solve all of your problems, since the governmental agencies, creditors and credit reporting agencies will still have your old number in their records. The fact that you are now using a new number does not necessarily guarantee you a fresh start.
Once you have been assigned a new Social Security number, you cannot continue using your previous number. This may temporarily create complications for you when attempting to obtain new credit, as the payment history that used to appear in your credit reports with the previous number will no longer be there.
Ways to prevent ID Theft
The ease with which we obtain many services nowadays, get approved for new credit and carry out transfers, among other things, put at risk our personal information and makes it easier to be stolen. Following are some tips to protect your information and prevent this from happening:
• Protect your credit - Regularly check that the information in your credit report is correct. You may request a free copy of your credit report once a year. Access the following website: www.annualcreditreport.com
• Destroy documents as a precaution - Shred all documents that may contain sensitive information. Invest in a shredder; there are several reasonably-priced models on the market.
• Check your statements - As soon as you receive them, ensure that the transactions shown are accurate. If you find any discrepancy, immediately file a claim with your creditor.
•Protect yourself in the workplace - Ask your employer what actions it takes to protect your personal information. Find out who has access to your information and the measures put into practice to keep it safe.
• Be careful with whom you share your information - Do not provide personal information by phone, mail or Internet unless you really know who you're dealing with.
• Be alert when using the ATM - Be careful when you are using it; cover the keypad with your free hand when inputting your personal identification number (PIN).
• Use a solid password – it should consist of a combination of letters, numbers and symbols to reinforce protection. Do not use your date of birth, social security number, favorite color, or names of children/pets.
• Protect your Social Security number - When companies request your social security number, ask why they need it and how they will protect it.
• Reduce the number of credit cards – Keep the credit cards that you really need. It is recommended that you have one or two credit cards. Keep track of all your credit cards and their billing cycle so that you may promptly report a theft.
• Secure your computer - Install a firewall to prevent a hacker from obtaining information from your computer. Set a password to access your computer and/or the documents and information within it.
Talk to all members of your family about the importance of properly managing personal information and not to disclose it over the Internet or by phone. Include children as they are increasingly being exposed to the Web. Suggest to them that they check the privacy policies that each company has implemented before sharing information.
Steps to take if you are a victim of ID Theft
Contact the fraud departments of the three major credit reporting agencies and let them know that you have been a victim of identity theft and request that a fraud alert be included on your credit report.
There are two types of fraud alerts: an initial alert and an extended alert. An initial alert stays on your credit report for at least 90 days. You may request that an initial fraud alert be placed on your credit report if you suspect that you have been or are about to become a victim of identity theft. When you place an initial fraud alert on your credit report you are entitled to receive a free copy of your report from each of the three credit reporting agencies.
An extended alert stays on your credit report for seven years.
You can have an extended alert placed on your credit report if you've been a victim of identity theft and request it in writing. When you place an extended alert on your credit report, you are entitled to two free copies of your credit report from each of the three credit reporting agencies within a twelve-month period.
When a company notices the alert on your credit report, it must verify your identity before granting new credit to you. As part of this verification process, the business may try to contact you directly. Request a copy of your credit report. Agencies should be willing to provide you a free copy of the same.
If you have been a victim of Identity Theft, you should contact each of your credit reporting agencies at the following telephone numbers:
Trans Union - 1 (800) 680-7289
Equifax - 1 (888) 611-9573
Experian - 1 (800) 397-3742
You are entitled to a free copy of your credit report once a year from each of these agencies. You may call 1-877-322-8228 or access the following website: www.annualcreditreport.com
Close the accounts that you believe (or have a reason to believe) have been forged or fraudulently opened.
File a claim with creditors or agencies where accounts were opened fraudulently. Use new Personal Identification Numbers (PIN) when you open new accounts. Avoid using passwords with information that may be linked to your Social Security number or with you telephone number. If your ATM card is lost or stolen, cancel the card as soon as possible and request a new one. If your checks are stolen, immediately notify the bank to request them to flag the account and order a stop payment on each check. Once you have resolved your identity theft issue, request a letter from each creditor which indicates that they have closed the accounts and have released you from the debts. This letter is your best defense in the event that errors relating to these fraudulent accounts resurface in the future
File a complaint or report with your local police or the community where the identity theft occurred.
Get a copy of the complaint or at least the number of the report or complaint. If the police officer is reluctant to take your report, ask them to allow you to fill a "Complaint for Miscellaneous Incidents." You might check with your state’s Attorney General Office to find out if local law requires police officers to take down information from citizens who file reports for identity theft.
File a complaint with the FTC (Federal Trade Commission)
To immediately file a complaint, you may access the following web site: www.consumer.gov/idtheft. You may also call the ID Theft hot line 1-877-ID-THEFT (1-877-438-4338), or 1-866-653-4261 (TTY) for the hearing impaired, and your complaint will be entered into a consumer fraud database that can only accessed by law-enforcement agencies. You may contact the free hotline for additional information or to update your original case.
What is a fraud alert?
There are two types of fraud alerts: an initial alert and an extended alert. Following is an explanation of each type and what they entail:
An initial alert stays on your credit report for at least 90 days. You may request that an initial fraud alert be placed on your credit report if you suspect that you have been or are about to become a victim of identity theft.
When you place an initial fraud alert on your credit report you are entitled to receive a free copy of your report from each of the three credit reporting agencies.
An extended alert stays on your credit report for seven years. You can have an extended alert placed on your credit report if you've been a victim of identity theft and request it in writing.
When you place an extended alert on your credit report, you are entitled to two free copies of your credit report from each of the three credit reporting agencies within a twelve-month period.
To request that these fraud alerts appear on your credit reports (or to remove them) you will be required to furnish documentation that confirms your name and address.
When a company notices the alert on your credit report, it must verify your identity before granting new credit to you. As part of this verification process, the business may try to contact you directly. This will cause a slight delay if you are attempting to obtain new credit.