According to the F.B.I., identity theft is the fastest-growing white-collar crime in the United States. Nowadays, when your purse or wallet gets stolen, the cash inside may not be the only thing a thief wants to steal. The most valuable items in your wallet are your Social Security number, ATM card, credit cards, bank checks, and any other items containing your personal information. Additionally, during the course of a busy day, you share this information when making transactions in person, over the telephone and online to buy goods and services. If this sensitive information falls into the hands of a criminal, it may be used to steal your financial identity.
Although it is impossible to guarantee that identity theft will never happen to you, this report provides information about how to reduce your chances of becoming a victim and what actions you can take if does occur.
What is Identity Theft?
Identity theft occurs when someone uses your name, Social Security number, credit card number or some other piece of your personal information to apply for a credit card, make unauthorized purchases, gain access to your bank accounts or obtain loans under your name. Unfortunately, most people do not know that they have been victims of identity theft until mysterious charges appear on their credit card bills or they are rejected for a mortgage because unpaid bills appear on their credit report.
Types of Identity Theft
Social Security Number
Your Social Security number is the most valuable piece of your personal financial information because it is your main identifying number for employment, tax reporting, and credit history tracking purposes. If your Social Security number falls in the hands of a thief, you could face serious problems as a result. A thief could use your Social Security number to obtain employment, open credit card accounts or obtain loans under your name. The best way to protect yourself is to guard your Social Security number and provide it to others only when absolutely necessary. Some businesses request your Social Security number for general record keeping. If they do, ask how your Social Security number will be used and whether you can use any other identifying number instead.
If your Social Security number is stolen, applying for a new one may not solve your identity theft problem. For example, a new Social Security number may not ensure a new credit record because credit bureaus may combine the credit records from your old Social Security number with your new one. Moreover, even when the old credit history is not associated with your new Social Security number, the absence of any credit history under your new Social Security number may make it more difficult to obtain credit.
There are numerous ways in which an identity thief can make unauthorized charges on your existing credit card accounts, or open up new accounts under your name. An ordinary thief might steal your wallet or purse and try to make use of your stolen cards and checks. The more sophisticated thief can fill out a change of address form from the post office to get all your bills sent to another address. He or she can also call your credit card issuer and, pretending to be you, change the mailing address on your credit card accounts. The impostor then runs up charges on your account. Since your bills are being sent to a new address, you may not immediately realize the problem. An identity thief might also open new accounts under your name by stealing and completing a pre-approved credit card offer sent to you in the mail, using your name, date of birth and Social Security number, but a different address, on the application form. If this occurs, you may not discover that a new account has been opened under your name until the unpaid bills appear on your credit report.
Identity thieves can also obtain your credit card information from purchases you make at stores, over the telephone or online. For example, the credit card information you provide in person or over the telephone during a purchase can be improperly used to make unauthorized charges on your account. In addition, thieves can obtain your credit card number and other personal information through fraudulent or unsecured Web sites. No matter how professional looking the Web site, check the company’s reliability with the Better Business Bureau before doing business with it, review the Web site’s security policy, and be sure to use a secure browser if you are providing credit card information online. In the address window of your browser, check to see that the first part of the company’s Web address changes from "http://" to "https://;" and also check the lower corner of the Web page to see whether a lock or key symbol appears, signifying security. Using a secure browser helps to ensure the safety of your personal data when it is being transmitted to a company’s computers.
Identity thieves can drain your checking account by stealing your checks or your checking account number from your home or office and forging your signature, or by making counterfeit checks in your name, using a home computer. Some thieves even use cleaning solvent to remove what is already written on a check, making it payable to themselves. If your checks have been stolen or misused, immediately notify your bank, place a stop payment order, and close your checking account.
Be aware that identity thieves can also open checking accounts in your name using personal information such as your Social Security number. When they write bad checks on that account, those debts appear on your credit report.
Cellular Telephone Service
Identity thieves can establish new cellular telephone service in your name or make unauthorized calls that seem to come from, and are billed to, your cellular phone. Others make unauthorized charges by using your calling card and PIN. If this occurs, contact your service provider to close your existing account, and establish another one with a new PIN.
Internet Account Updates
You may receive e-mail requests that seem to be from your Internet Service Provider stating that your "account information needs to be updated" or that "the credit card you used to sign up for service is invalid or expired and the information needs to be reentered to keep your account active." Such requests may come from scam artists seeking to obtain your personal information to commit fraud. If you receive this kind of request, do not respond without checking with your Internet Service Provider first.
Phony Identity Theft Prevention Services
The Federal Trade Commission warns that some companies that claim to be identity theft prevention services are guises for obtaining personal information from you such as your driver’s license number, mother’s maiden name, Social Security number and credit and bank account numbers. Remember, do not give out any personal information over the phone or online unless you are familiar with the business that is asking for it. If you are unsure about a firm, check it out with the Better Business Bureau.
Although there is no method for guaranteeing that identity theft will never happen to you, below are tips than can help you minimize your risk:
One of the most frustrating aspects of identity fraud is that you may not discover it until it has already occurred. Below are some of the warning signs:
Correcting the Problem
The most important thing to do when you discover identity fraud is to take action right away. Remember to keep records of all your telephone calls and other correspondence with companies regarding the identity fraud.
If you report the loss before the credit card is used, the card issuer cannot hold you responsible for any unauthorized charges. If a thief uses your credit card before you report it missing, the most you will owe for unauthorized charges is $50 per card. This is true even if the thief uses your credit card at an ATM machine to obtain a cash advance.
As such liability is limited to $50, beware of calls from telemarketers selling "loss protection" insurance. Some telemarketers may falsely claim that you will be responsible for all unauthorized charges made against your account if your credit card is stolen. Don’t buy the pitch and don’t buy the unnecessary insurance.
ATM and Debit Cards
Be aware that ATM and debit cards do not allow the same protections as credit cards. If you fail to report unauthorized charges within a timely manner, you could be held liable for the charges.
Most states hold the bank responsible for the losses from a forged check. However, you may be held liable for the forgery if you do not notify the back in a timely manner that a check was lost or stolen, or if you do not monitor your account statements and promptly report an unauthorized transaction. Contact the major check verification companies (listed below) to request that they notify retailers using their databases not to accept the lost or stolen checks, or ask your bank to notify the check verification service with which it does business.
National Check Fraud Service: 1-843-571-2143
TeleCheck: 1-800-710-9898 or 1-800-927-0188
Equifax Check Systems: 1-800-437-5120
International Check Services: 1-800-526-5380
Contact each of the three major credit bureaus if you discover that you are the victim of identity fraud. You are entitled to a free copy of your credit report if you are unemployed, on welfare, were recently denied credit or if your report is inaccurate because of fraud. Otherwise, there is a fee of $8.50 for your credit report. When contacting the credit bureaus, you need to provide your Social Security number, date ofbirth, phone number, current address, any previous addresses over the past two years, and the name of your current employer.
Equifax — To order your credit report or to report fraud by mail, contact Equifax at
P.O. Box 740241
Atlanta, GA 30374-0241.
To order your report by telephone, contact 1-800-685-1111. To report fraud over the telephone, contact 1-800-525-6285.
You can also access Equifax’s Web site at www.equifax.com.
Experian — To order your report by mail, contact
P.O. Box 2002
Allen, TX 75013.
To report fraud by mail, contact
P.O. Box 9532
Allen, TX 75013.
To order your credit report or report fraud by telephone, contact 1-888-EXPERIAN (397-3742).
You can also access Experian’s Web site at www.experian.com.
Trans Union — To order your report by mail, contact
P.O. Box 1000
Chester, PA 19022.
To report fraud by mail, contact
Fraud Victim Assistance Division
P.O. Box 6790
Fullerton, CA 92634.
To report fraud by telephone, call 1-800-680-7289.
You can also access Trans Union’s Web site at www.tuc.com.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is the federal clearinghouse for identity theft complaints. Although the FTC does not have the authority to bring criminal cases, it helps victims of identity theft by providing them with information to help resolve the financial and other problems that result from identity theft. The FTC also may refer victims’ complaints to other appropriate government agencies and private organizations for action. Contact the FTC by calling its toll-free hotline at 1-877-IDTHEFT (438-4338), by writing to
Identity Theft Clearinghouse
Federal Trade Commission
600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20580
or by accessing its Web site at www.consumer.gov/idtheft.
The Social Security Fraud Hotline should be contacted if your Social Security number is being misused. Contact the Social Security Fraud Hotline by mail at
P.O. Box 17768
Baltimore, MD 21235
by telephone at 1-800-269-0271, by fax at 1-410-597-0118,
and by e-mail at email@example.com. You can also access its Web site at www.ssa.gov.
Contact the following bank regulators if you have persistent problems resolving your identity fraud problems with a financial institution:
The New York State Banking Department is the primary regulator for New York State-licensed and stated-chartered financial entities, including domestic banks, foreign agencies, branches and representative offices, savings institutions and trust companies and other financial institutions operating in New York including mortgage bankers and brokers, check cashers, money transmitters, and licensed lenders, among others. To file a complaint, contact
Consumer Services Division
New York State Banking Department
2 Rector Street
New York, NY 10006.
You can also contact this agency by calling 1-800-522-3300
by accessing its Web site address at www.banking.state.ny.us, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Banking Department’s Web site also lists information about the fees charged by various banks.
The Office of the Comptroller of Currency regulates national banks, which can usually be identified because they have the words "national" or "national association" in their titles or the letters N.A. or NT&SA following their titles. If you are unable to resolve a complaint with the bank yourself, contact the
Office of the Comptroller of Currency Consumer Assistance Group
1301 McKinney Street, Suite 3710
Houston, TX 77010.
You can also contact this agency by telephone at 1-800-613-6743 (business days 9:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. CST) by accessing its Web site at www.occ.treas.gov, or by e-mail at Customer.Assistance@occ.treas.gov.
The Office of Thrift Supervision regulates savings banks and savings and loan banks having the word "Federal" in their name or which use the initials FSB (federal savings bank) or FSLA (federal savings and loan association). You can contact this agency by writing to the
Office of Thrift Supervision, Northeast Region,
10 Exchange Place Centre, 18th Floor
Jersey City, NJ 07302.
You can also contact this agency by telephone at 1-800-842-6929
by accessing its Web site at www.ots.treas.gov or by e-mail at email@example.com.
The U.S. Postal Inspector can assist if an identity thief stole your mail to get new credit cards, bank and credit card statements, pre-screened offers, tax information, or if a thief has falsified change-of-address forms. Contact your local post office for the phone number for the nearest postal inspection service or check the Postal Service Web site at www.usps.gov/websites/depart/inspect.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is one of the federal criminal law enforcement agencies that investigates cases of identity theft. Local field offices are listed in the Blue Pages of your telephone directory. You can also access the FBI’s Web site at www.fbi.gov.