You may think to yourself, “identity theft only happens in the movies” or “Who wants to be me anyway?” Well, there are plenty of criminals that would love to be someone else. To have your life ruined instead of theirs. We are going to take an in-depth look at what identity theft is, how to prevent identity theft, as well as how to recover from it.
Identity theft occurs when someone uses your personal information to commit fraud or other crimes. It may involve your computer, portable electronic devices like your phone or tablet, mail, personal documentation like a driver’s license or birth certificate. Anything displaying personal identification information that can be used to do business as you can be used to commit identity theft.
The Reality: How your information is obtained
A thief will do whatever they can to obtain your information by any means necessary. That could mean anything from striking up a friendly conversation to gain access to your work building, to posing as a legitimate company asking for your online account login information. The more they know the easier it is to become “you.” Other common things they do include:
- Steal your mail right out of your mailbox.
- Pretend to be a landlord renting a property to obtain credit report information.
- Go through trash to find financial documents, bills, or anything obtaining personal information.
- Pose as a company or the government to request personal information via email, phone, or text.
- Go into a workplace and steal computers or hard drives with electronic files.
- Hack into personal computers remotely.
The Scary Part: How your information may be used
Once identity thieves have your information there are endless possibilities for that they can do with it. Things that will do damage to your credit score and overall purchasing power, like:
- Charge existing credit card accounts or apply for new ones in your name.
- Establish phone or wireless services in your name.
- Use your debit cards to make purchases, withdraw from the ATM, or drain your checking account.
- Apply for an auto loan or personal loan in your name.
There are many ways to protect yourself from identity theft and fraud. It takes a bit of effort but pales in comparison to the effort needed to clean up the mess left by identity thieves.
Check Your Credit Reports
- Monitor your account information at least annually.
- Check for any discrepancies and dispute them immediately by contacting the creditors involved.
- Pull your credit report. You are entitled to one free credit report per year by each of the three credit bureaus; Experian, Transunion, and Equifax.
Secure Your Personal Identity Information
- Provide personal information only to those you have initiated contact with and make sure you know how it will be used. Verify that it won’t be shared outside of the agreed upon terms.
- Keep all identification and financial documents in a safe and secure place. Do not carry your Social Security card with you.
- Make all passwords secure by using a complex combination of numbers, symbols, and upper and lower case letters.
- Request that your mail be placed on hold at your local post office if you are going away for an extended period of time.
- Keep your purse or wallet secured at all times, even at work.
Manage Your Credit Card, ATM, Debit Cards and Checking Accounts
- Photocopy both sides of your cards so that you have all account numbers, expiration dates, and phone numbers and keep them in a safe place.
- Shred all statements and pre-approved credit card offers with a crosscut shredder.
- Be aware of people behind you at the ATM or stores when entering your PIN. Contact your creditors if your statements don’t arrive on time.
- Know where your checkbook is at all times.
- Routinely check your account for fraudulent activity. Sign up for online banking so that you always have access to your account history.
- Utilize electronic statements instead of paper statements through the mail.
Safeguard Your Computer
- Keep your computer virus protection software updated. Don’t ignore the alerts when an update has been announced. Use a firewall program to thwart any potential hackers.
- Do not download files or attachments or click on hyperlinks sent from people you don’t know.
- Enter personal and financial information only when there is a “lock” icon on the internet browser’s status bar. The web address (URL) should display “https” instead of “http”.
- Use strong passwords that are a combination of upper and lower case letters and alpha numerical symbols.
- Always log off when you are finished.
If you are a victim of identity theft, understand it is not resolved immediately. It will take patience and a plan to recover from any damage. The sooner you deal with the problem, the faster you will see results. Take lots of notes and remain organized. You will communicate with a lot of people during the process and will have many tasks to complete on your own. Keep copies of all letters, file paperwork promptly, and store everything in a safe and accessible place.
Contact Creditors and Financial Institutions
- If accounts have been used or opened illegally, contact your creditors immediately. For any compromised account, get a new account number and a new card. You may need to provide a police report.
- If a collection agency attempts to collect on a fraudulent account, explain in writing that you are a victim of identity theft. Provide copies of all necessary paperwork. Ask that they confirm in writing that you do not owe the balance and that the account has been closed.
- For checking account fraud, contact your financial institution to place stop payments on any outstanding checks. You may need to reach out to any payees to let them know you will be sending a new check. Close the current account and obtain new account numbers.
Notify Legal and Government Agencies
- A crime has been committed. We repeat, a crime has been committed. Report the fraudulent activity and file a police report. Even if it was a family member or a close friend that is the only way you can recoup your losses. Request a copy of the report and keep the investigators information handy for easy access.
- Notify the US Postal Inspection Service if your mail was stolen or your address was used fraudulently.
Inform the Credit Bureaus
- Check your credit reports from all three bureaus; Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Dispute any fraudulent items by submitting a form online or mailing a letter to the credit bureaus.
- Be proactive and report any fraud to the credit bureaus even if the fraudulent information hasn’t appeared on your credit report yet. When someone applies for credit under your name, the creditor will be alerted to verify that the person applying is you. The initial fraud alert only lasts 90 days. However, if you file a police report, you can extend the alert to seven years. You can also place a freeze on your credit files. You will be given a password that will be needed by anyone wishing to access your credit file.
Remember: recovering is a long process. Staying organized, keeping track of all documents and contact information that you receive and continuing to diligently monitor your accounts will help you feel a little more in control of the situation.
This article was adapted from The Basics of Identity Theft by BALANCE