How to Stop Identity Theft
Three smart ways to protect yourself
One of the fastest growing white-collar crimes in America is identity theft. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), as many as 9 million Americans have their identities stolen each year. Chances are, if you haven't been a victim of identity theft, someone you know has.
What Is Identity Theft?
The FTC defines identity theft as occurring "when someone uses your personally identifying information, like your name, Social Security number or credit card number, without your permission, to commit fraud or other crimes."
Three Steps for Protecting Yourself:
To help protect consumers and businesses from the hassle and expense of identity theft, the FTC designed an educational program based on three steps.
1. Deter Identity Thieves
It may sound cliche, but the best defense against identity theft is a good offense. By becoming knowledgeable about how identity thieves work and safeguarding your information, you can better protect yourself.
According to the FTC, here are some ways you can safeguard information:
- Shred documents with your personal information on it. A common way for identity thieves to obtain information is through dumpster diving.
- Guard your Social Security number. Be sure not to carry it on you, and don't write it on your checks.
- Refrain from giving out personal information. Don't disclose information such as your mother's maiden name (a common "security question" for credit cards) or a Social Security number either online, on the telephone or in person, which can give an identity thief a window to your money.
- Exercise caution when surfing online. Do business with companies you know and don't click on pop-up menus that ask for your personal information. The FTC encourages individuals to "use firewalls, anti-spyware and antivirus software to protect your home computer; keep them up to date."
- Create complex passwords. Try not to use obvious combinations, such as your street address, birthday or mother's maiden name.
2. Detect Identity Theft
The second step in the FTC program involves detection. The FTC notes that certain signs may indicate your identity has been compromised:
- Delays in receiving bills
- Credit card statements you don't recognize
- Credit denials
- Unrecognizable credit or debit card purchases
A key part of detection involves reviewing your credit report periodically. By law, you are entitled to receive one free credit report a year from each of the major credit bureaus - Equifax, TransUnion or Experian. You can order them at annualcreditreport.com.
3. Defend Your Credit
The final step in the FTC's program is defense. The FTC offers these specific steps to take if you believe your identity has been compromised:
Request a "Fraud Alert" on your credit reports. The alert will allow creditors to contact you before opening any new accounts in your name or making changes to any of your accounts. The credit bureaus' toll-free numbers for placing a fraud alert are as follows:
- Experian: 1-888-EXPERIAN (397-3742)
- TransUnion: 1-800-680-7289
- Equifax: 1-800-525-6285
Notify the fraud departments of companies where your accounts have been compromised. Be sure to write them a letter to follow up and to provide them any copies of supporting documents.
The FTC encourages you to then do the following:
- Complete an affidavit at ftc.gov/idtheft to support your written statement.
- Ask the creditor to verify that the problem has been dealt with.
- Keep copies of everything.
- File a police report.
Notify the Federal Trade Commission:
- Online: ftc.gov/idtheft
- By phone: 1-877-ID-THEFT (438-4338) or TTY, 1-866-653-4261
- By mail: Identity Theft Clearinghouse, Federal Trade Commission, Washington, DC 20580
For more information on identify theft, visit the FTC at http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/microsites/idtheft/.
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