One of today’s fastest-growing and most ominous crimes is identity theft, where someone steals your personal information and uses it to open a bank account or loan, make purchases, secure false identification, or commit other offenses. Victims are often unaware it’s happened for months, by which time their credit may have been damaged – or worse.
How do identity thieves get your information? It could be as simple as rummaging through your trash, snatching your purse or stealing your mail, or as “high-tech” as hacking into your email account or your employer’s computer system. Thieves sometimes steal credit card receipts from dumpsters and have even been known to watch with binoculars as people enter their personal codes into telephones or ATMs.
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to protect your personal information and many resources available to help. There are hundreds of helpful Web sites, such as the Federal Trade Commission’s at www.consumer.gov/idtheft.
Here are a few preventative tips offered by the experts:
- Always shred documents containing personal information before discarding them.
- Take all card receipts and carbons with you, especially from ATMs, supermarkets, and self-service gas pumps.
- Don’t give out personal information on the phone, by mail or over the Internet unless you initiated the contact and know with whom you’re dealing.
- With your computer, never click on links in unsolicited emails, don’t choose obvious passwords, and use up-to-date firewalls, anti-spyware and anti-virus software.
- Store personal information in a secure place, especially if you employ outside help or have work done on your house.
- Be aware when mail or bills don’t arrive as expected, if you receive unexpected credit cards or statements, if a credit application is denied for no apparent reason, or if you are contacted by debt collectors or businesses about goods or services you didn’t buy.
- Save and compare credit card receipts with charges on monthly statements. If you find an error, immediately contact the card issuer via phone and in writing.
- Under federal law, the major nationwide consumer reporting companies, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, must provide you a free copy of your credit report, at your request, once every 12 months. To order, go to www.annualcreditreport.com or call 877-322-8228. Carefully review them for incorrect personal information, inquiries from companies you don’t recognize, accounts you didn’t open, or unexplained debts.
- If you suspect identity theft, immediately contact the fraud departments at Equifax (800-525-6285), Experian (888-397-3742) and TransUnion (800-680-7289). Ask them to place a "fraud alert" in your file and to send a copy of your credit report.
- Visit Practical Money Skills for Life, www.practicalmoneyskills.com, a free personal finance site sponsored by Visa Inc. that features step-by-step actions you should take if you suspect identity theft, as well as advice for safeguarding your information.
- If a theft has taken place, file a police report and get a copy in case your creditors need proof. Also file a complaint with the FTC at its Identity Theft Hotline (877-IDTHEFT) or online at www.consumer.gov/idtheft.
Identity theft can be a serious, frustrating and time-consuming problem, but with the right preparations, you can minimize your chances of being victimized.