Identity theft occurs when one person uses another’s identification (name, address, driver’s license number, social security number, mother’s maiden name, birth date) to obtain credit, open checking accounts, rent apartments and even obtain jobs.
Identity theft can happen several ways. It may begin:
- with a lost or stolen wallet or purse
- when a computer hacker steals your credit card number from a corporate database
- when an employee steals your personal financial information from a company that holds it
- when credit card applications, statements, or checks are stolen from your trash or mail
Identity thieves will use the identification information to obtain new credit cards, open checking accounts, get a bogus driver’s license or Social Security card, make long distance calls, and so on. ID theft is a felony crime and should be reported to your local law enforcement agency.
Because of the nature of the crime, victims often do not realize their identity has been stolen until they are denied credit, turned down for a job, or sent a bill for purchases they did not make. By that time, the consumer’s good name and credit history may be in ruins. Rebuilding good credit in the aftermath of identity theft can take months or even years.
Detecting Identity Theft
These are some of the warning signs of identity theft:
- You receive bills from a credit account you did not open, or see unauthorized charges on your credit, phone or bank accounts.
You are contacted by a collection agency regarding a debt you did not incur.
- Checks disappear from your checkbook.
- Bank and credit billing statements do not arrive on schedule.
- Your credit report shows accounts you do not remember opening.
- You are turned down for a credit card, loan, mortgage or other form of credit due to unauthorized debts on your credit report.
What to do if you are the victim of identity theft
If you believe you are the victim of identity theft, follow these procedures:
- As soon as possible, file a theft report with the police. Many banks and credit agencies require such a report before they will acknowledge that a theft has occurred.
- Contact the three primary credit reporting bureaus to have a fraud alert placed on your report. Review your credit reports again every few months to check for fraudulent new accounts.
- Send a brief victim statement to each of the credit bureaus to include in your file. In the statement, explain to the best of your knowledge how the identity theft occurred.
- If your wallet or purse is stolen, immediately cancel your old credit cards and get replacements. If you have several cards, you should consider enrolling in a credit card registry service, which will notify all your creditors after one call from you.
- Put a “stop payment” on all lost or stolen checks. Be aware, however, that many banks require your signature or a signed affidavit to begin a stop payment order, and a fee may be imposed. If necessary, ask your bank to open a new account with a new number. If someone passes one of your stolen checks at a store, file a fraudulent use report with the merchant’s check verification service.
- If your ATM or debit card is lost or stolen, contact your financial institution to cancel the card. If you get a new ATM or debit card, do not use your old password.
- If someone else has opened credit card accounts in your name without authorization, contact the creditors immediately by phone and in writing. Cancel the accounts.
- Notify the post office if you believe someone has filed a change of address form in your name or has used the mail to commit credit or bank fraud in your name.
- If you find unauthorized charges on your phone bill, report it to the security or fraud department with your carrier. Ask to have the old account closed and a new account number issued to you. Also ask the company to require a secret password before making changes to your account.
- If you are a victim of theft, you may get a call from someone posing as a bank representative or law enforcement official. The caller will say that information is needed to prepare a replacement credit card, update a credit report, and so on. If this happens, DO NOT give out any account information. You have no way of knowing who is really on the other end of the line.
- If another person is arrested and falsely uses your name or other personal information to establish their identity, Texas law allows you to have this information expunged from the arrest record. Contact the Texas Department of Public Safety for more information on the expunction process.
What is personal information?
Any information that an impostor can use to commit fraud, such as:
- Social Security Number
- Birth Date
- Driver’s License Number
Here are a few steps you can take to insure your personal security.
- Periodically go through your wallet or purse and remove receipts, credit cards you rarely use, and other items that contain personal financial information useful to a thief. Carry no more than you absolutely need for everyday use.
- Memorize all passwords and PIN numbers. Don’t carry any record of these numbers in your wallet or purse. Ask your bank, long distance company and all credit issuers to require a password before responding to inquiries or making changes to an account.
- If you keep a lost-and-found tag on your key ring, do not use your home address. Ask that they be mailed to a post office box or to your bank. If your keys are stolen, reduce the thief’s access to your personal property and information by replacing the locks on your home and car.
- Keep photocopies of your driver’s license, credit cards, Social Security and insurance cards and other contents of your wallet or purse, plus credit account, tax records, cancelled checks and other personal financial information in a secure place your home. You will need this information if your identity is compromised. Shred all such records before throwing them away. Do not make them easily accessible to a burglar.
Mail and telephone security
Here are a few steps you can take to discourage mail and telephone theft.
- Mail theft is common. Do not leave mail for the postal carrier to pick up. Mail bills and other sensitive items at the post office.
- Consider installing a locked mailbox or using a post office box.
- Do not write account numbers on checks or on the outside of envelopes.
- If you order new checks or a new or reissued credit card, arrange for pickup at your bank rather than delivery to your home.
- Never allow your driver’s license number or telephone number to be printed on your checks.
- If your bank or credit card statements do not arrive on time, call the issuer to make sure they are being sent to the proper address. Also call the Post Office to see if a change of address has been filed in your name. A thief may may steal or divert your statements in order to hide illegal credit activity.
- Do not give your Social Security, bank account or credit card numbers to any unsolicited callers. There is no way to verify their true identity over the phone. If you are interested in the product or service, ask to have details sent to you by mail or for a website address you can go to to get more information.
- Sign up for the Texas “No Call List” maintained by the Public Utilities Commission. This will stop most unwanted telemarketing calls to your home phone for three years.
- Shield your hand when entering your PIN at a bank ATM. Identity thieves have been known to spy on their victims with binoculars or video cameras to record this information.
In many cases today, identity theft is done by illegally accessing corporate marketing and billing databases and stealing the personal information they contain, victimizing thousands of people at a time. One key to safeguarding your identity is
to limit how much of your personal financial information is stored in these databases.
- Sign up for the Direct Marketing Association’s Mail Preference Service and Telephone Preference Service. This will delete your name from members’ marketing lists for up to five years.
- Remove your name from the marketing lists of the three credit reporting bureaus: Equifax, Experian and Trans Union. This will limit the number of pre-approved credit offers you receive.
- Your credit billing statements should give an address for correspondence other than payment. Request, in writing, that all credit issuers remove your name from their marketing and promotion lists.
- If any of your credit card issuers send random-issue convenience checks, request in writing to be removed from that mailing list.
- Ask your bank about its privacy and information policies. Find out when your bank may provide your account information to a third party. Request that you be notified in advance and ask if it is possible to ‘opt out’ of this practice.
social security information
Here are a few steps you can take to guard against Social Security fraud.
- Do not carry a Social Security card with you unless needed for a job application.
- Release your Social Security number only when absolutely necessary or when required by law. Ask the requester if another identification number can be used instead. Your Social Security number can give a thief access to your banking and credit card accounts, insurance and health benefits.
- Never print your Social Security number on your checks.
- If your workplace displays your Social Security number on a time card or other place open to public view, ask to have this procedure changed.
- If you are over age 25, you should receive a Social Security statement by mail each year. Check your statement thoroughly and report any inaccuracies to the Social Security Administration. You can order a copy of your statement by calling 800-772-1213 or by accessing the Social Security website at http://www.ssa.gov
A criminal may pose as an employer, loan officer or landlord to request a copy of your credit report in an effort to access personal information. Order a copy of your credit report at least once a year from each of the three credit bureaus to check for inaccuracies or fraudulent use of accounts.
Even if you have not been the victim of identity theft, consider asking the credit bureaus to place a fraud alert on your account. This alert instructs creditors to call you personally to verify applicant information. While this will mean that you can no longer get ‘instant’ credit, such as on-site approval for store charge cards, it will also stop others from getting credit in your name. Make sure to ask how long the alert will be in effect and how to extend it if necessary.
Here are a few steps you can take to guard against credit/ATM/debit card fraud.
- Reduce the number of credit cards you actively use and cancel any accounts you have not used for over six months. Any open account appears on your credit report and can be used by an identity thief.
- Use credit cards that have your photo on them. This makes it more difficult for an impostor to use stolen cards at a store.
- If you receive an offer for a pre-approved credit card or loan and are not interested, shred the application form before throwing it away. Identity thieves have been known to go through trash looking for useful financial information.
- Always take your credit card receipts and ATM slips after a transaction. Shred them before throwing them away.
- Check your bank account and credit billing statements carefully each month for unauthorized activity.
- If you receive a credit card in the mail that you did not request, call the issuer to find out why it was sent to you. If it was requested by someone else in your name, cancel it immediately and follow the steps outlined below.
- When creating a password for an ATM card, long distance account, credit card or other form of credit, do not use common numbers, such as our birth date or the last four digits of your Social Security number. Avoid using names, such as your mother’s maiden name or your birthplace, that are likely to appear in public records accessible to thieves.
computer and internet security
Many consumers today use the internet to shop, pay bills and conduct financial transactions. Follow these tips when shopping and paying bills online.
- If you store financial records on your computer, keep a backup file on disk in a secure place. Use passwords and install an electronic firewall to keep burglars and internet hackers from accessing your computer.
- Do not give your credit card number or other financial information over the internet unless you are certain you have a secure server connection.
- Save the transaction number or confirmation number provided to you by the business and make a note of the date/time of the transaction and what you ordered.
- Request that the online companies you deal with restrict access and sharing of your financial information.
- Remember that most legitimate businesses will not ask for your Social Security or bank account numbers.