Identity theft occurs when someone uses personal information without your permission --- like your name, Social Security number or credit card number --- to commit fraud or other crimes. The Federal Trade Commission estimates that as many as 9 million Americans have their identities stolen each year. While nothing can guarantee that you won't become a victim of identity theft, you can minimize your risk and minimize the damage if a problem develops.
Protect your Social Security number. Don't carry your Social Security card in your wallet or write your Social Security number on a check. Give your Social Security number only when absolutely necessary. Your employer and financial institutions will need your Social Security number for wage and tax reporting purposes. Other businesses may ask you for your Social Security number to do a credit check if you are applying for a loan, renting an apartment, or signing up for utilities.
Shred statements and other documents. Identity thieves like to pick through trash or recycling bins to capture personal information. Always shred your charge receipts, copies of credit applications, insurance forms, physician statements, checks and bank statements, expired charge cards, credit offers you get in the mail, any other documents containing sensitive personal information. Promptly remove mail from your mailbox.
Be on guard when using the Internet. The Internet can give you access to information, entertainment, financial offers and countless other services. However, it can also leave you vulnerable to online scammers and identity thieves. For practical tips to help you guard against Internet fraud and protect your personal information, visit www.OnGuardOnline.gov.
Select intricate passwords. Use passwords on your credit card, bank and phone accounts. Avoid using easily available information like your mother's maiden name, your birth date, [a single word, the last four digits of your Social Security number or phone number, or a series of consecutive numbers. Combinations of letters, numbers and special characters make the strongest passwords.
Verify the source before sharing information. Don't give out personal information on the phone, through the mail or on the Internet unless you initiated the contact and are sure you know who you're dealing with. Identity thieves are clever, and may pose as representatives of banks, Internet service providers, or even government agencies to get people to reveal their Social Security number, mother's maiden name, account numbers and other identifying information.
Store information in secure locations. Keep your personal information in a secure place at home, especially if you have roommates, employ outside help, or are having work done in your house. Share your personal information only with family members who have a legitimate need for it. Keep your purse or wallet in a safe place at work. And safeguard copies of administrative forms at work that contain your sensitive personal information.
MONITOR STATEMENTS AND CREDIT REPORTS
The best way to detect identity theft is to monitor your accounts and bank statements each month, and check your credit report on a regular basis. Early detection of identity theft can make a big difference. Keep an eye out for any suspicious activity by routinely monitoring your financial accounts and billing statements regularly, looking closely for charges you did not make.
Credit reports contain information about you, including what accounts you have and how you pay your bills. If an identity thief is opening credit accounts in your name, these accounts are likely to show up on your credit report. Look for inquiries from companies you haven't contacted, accounts you didn't open, and debts on your accounts that you can't explain. Check that information, like your Social Security number, address(es), name or initials and employers are correct. Check your credit report periodically free of charge.
WARNING SIGNS OF IDENTITY THEFT
Stay alert for the warning signs of identity theft, like:
Accounts you didn't open and debts on your accounts that you can't explain.
Fraudulent or inaccurate information on your credit reports, including accounts and personal information, like your Social Security number, address(es), name or initials, and employers.
Failing to receive bills or other mail. Follow up with creditors if your bills don't arrive on time. A missing bill could mean an identity thief has taken over your account and changed your billing address to cover his tracks.
Receiving credit cards that you didn't apply for.
Being denied credit, or being offered less favorable credit terms like a high interest rate, for no apparent reason.
Getting calls or letters from debt collectors or businesses about merchandise or services you didn't buy.
Getting something in the mail about an apartment you never rented, a house you never bought or a job you never held.
STEPS TO TAKE IF YOU ARE A VICTIM OF IDENTITY THEFT
If you are a victim of identity theft, take the following steps as soon as possible. Also, keep a record with the details of your conversations and keep copies of all correspondence.
Place a fraud alert on your credit reports. Fraud alerts can help prevent an identity thief from opening any more accounts in your name. Contact the consumer reporting companies below to place a fraud alert on your credit report. You only need to contact one of the three companies to place an alert.
Close accounts that you believe have been tampered with or opened fraudulently. Call and speak with someone in the security or fraud department of each company. Follow up in writing, and include copies (NOT originals) of supporting documents. It's important to notify credit card companies and banks in writing. Send your letters by certified mail, return receipt requested, so you can document what the company received and when. Keep a file of your correspondence and enclosures.
File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. You can file a complaint with the FTC online or by calling its Identity Theft Hotline at 1-877-ID-THEFT. Be sure to call the Hotline to update your complaint if you have any additional information or problems. By sharing your identity theft complaint with the FTC, you will provide important information that can help law enforcement officials track down identity thieves. The FTC can refer victims' complaints to other government agencies and companies for further action, as well as investigate companies for violations of laws the agency enforces. The FTC Identity Theft Report can be used to permanently block fraudulent information from appearing on your credit report, ensure that debts do not reappear on your credit report, prevent a company from continuing to collect debts that result from identity theft, and place an extended fraud alert on your credit report.
File a report with police in your community or where the identity theft took place. Call your local police department and tell them that you want to file a report about your identity theft. Ask them if you can file the report in person. If you can't, ask if you can file a report online or by phone. When you go to your local police department to file your report, bring a printed copy of your FTC ID Theft Complaint Complaint, your cover letter, and your supporting documentation. The cover letter explains why a police report and an ID Theft Complaint are so important to victims. Ask the officer to attach or incorporate the ID Theft Complaint into their police report.