Identity Theft Unveiled

WHAT IS IDENTITY THEFT?

Identity theft happens when someone uses your personal information for their own gain. Identity thieves may use your name, Social Security number, date of birth, and any other personal and financial information they’ve obtained about you to apply for credit cards or loans, sign up for utilities, or steal money from your existing accounts.

A successful thief can steal thousands of dollars in a victim’s name. Often, the victim doesn’t even know about the fraud until months or years later, when their credit is wrecked and collection agencies start calling about delinquent accounts.

Criminal and medical identity theft also exist. A thief may pretend to be you after committing a crime or when needing medical care. It often falls upon the victim of criminal or medical identity theft to prove the thief’s criminal and medical records from your own.


HOW DOES IDENTITY THEFT HAPPEN?

Identity theft can happen to anyone, and there is no way to fully protect yourself from the crime. Here are some ways that identity thieves get a hold of your information:

  • Lost or stolen wallets
  • Card-skimming, or stealing your personal information during a transaction
  • “Friendly” theft, or identity theft by friends, family members, co-workers, and other people you know
  • Mailbox raiding and dumpster diving for your personal and financial information
  • Online methods, including e-mail phishing schemes in which a thief impersonates your bank or other trusted company
    you do business with to try and lure personal information out of you
  • Data breaches, or hacking into company systems to gain customer information

HOW DO I KNOW IF I’M A VICTIM?

Here are a few warning signs that indicate your identity may have been stolen:

  • Your monthly credit card or bank statements show unauthorized transactions.
  • Your credit reports list unauthorized accounts, such as new credit cards or loans.
  • You notice your mail is delivered sporadically, or you don’t receive your usual monthly credit card or bank account statements.
  • You receive credit cards in the mail for which you did not apply, or mail concerning assets or purchases you know nothing about.
  • You are denied for new credit or loans, or offered poor rates or terms,
    for no apparent reason.
  • You receive phone calls from collection agencies about accounts you did not open or purchases you did not make.

You are also at risk of identity theft if you have lost or stolen credit and debit cards, Social Security card, driver’s license, or other sensitive documents containing personal or financial information.

If you receive a notice that your information has been compromised in a security breach (i.e. fraudsters have hacked into a corporate database containing your personal information), you should carefully monitor your credit for signs of fraud.


HOW CAN I PROTECT MYSELF?

There are many things you can do to limit the chances of identity thieves stealing your identity.

  • Always shop securely online. Look for “https” in the address bar (the “s” stands for “secure”) and the security lock icon in the bottom right of the web browser window.
  • Beware of popular phishing schemes via phone and e-mail.
  • Limit the sensitive information you post about yourself on online social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace.
  • Install firewall, anti-spyware, and anti-virus software on your computer.
  • Use complex pass codes for websites and debit cards. Always choose an unpredictable combination of letters and numbers.
  • Shield your PIN from others at the ATM and cash register.
  • Make sure you wipe your hard drive (totally erase all of your personal data) before you donate, recycle, or toss your old computer.
  • Shred financial documents, receipts, and mail, both at home and at
    the office.
  • Consider a locked mailbox or a PO Box, especially if you share a mailbox with others.
  • Never have your driver’s license number printed on your checks. Also, never have new checks sent to your mailbox. Always pick them up from your local bank branch.
  • Only keep what you need in your wallet. Never carry extra credit cards, your Social Security card, or written ATM pass codes.
  • Sign up for a credit monitoring service that quickly alerts you to any suspicious activity on your credit report.

WHAT IS CREDIT MONITORING?

Signing up for a credit monitoring service is an easy, low-cost way to keep tabs on your credit and protect yourself against identity theft.

Instead of remembering to check your credit reports regularly, a credit monitoring service continuously checks them for you. Anytime there is activity—like when someone pulls your credit report or when a new account is opened in your name—you will receive an alert. Make sure that you’ve authorized each action, and confirm that it’s not evidence of an identity thief at work.

Credit monitoring is a great way to know about fraudulent activity before it wrecks your credit. Remember to also closely inspect your credit card and bank statements each month for fraudulent transactions. The sooner you learn that your identity has been stolen, the easier it is to get it back.