Identity Theft: Deter, Detect, Defend
Identity theft is when someone uses your personal information, such as name, social security number, or credit number, without your permission, to commit fraud or other crimes. Approximately 9 million US residents will have their identities used fraudulently each year, with an average cost of $3,500. The Federal Trade Commission advises a three-part plan of attack to dealing with the potential of identity theft: Deter, Detect, and Defend.
Deter. Keep financial information safe. Sometimes information is obtained by stealing wallets or credit cards, so carry only what you need, do not carry your social security card, and do not have you pin number in your wallet. Sometimes information is obtained by sifting through trash bins, so shred any trash that contains sensitive information, including free credit offers and other “junk” mail. Finally, sensitive information may be sought through phishing, or sending emails that appear to be from legitimate institutions (banks, credit card companies, utility companies), asking you to “update,” “confirm,” or “validate” your account. However, when you click on the link you are taken to a fake site. The site appears real, so you may not even realize it’s a fraud until damage is done. Never click on links in email – legitimate companies do not seek information this way. Rather, call the company or go to their website yourself to be sure no action is needed. Always be cautious about opening attachments in emails, no matter who sends them.
Detect. Some people do not know that a thief has opened a line of credit in their name until they review their credit report or are contacted by creditors. Check your credit report annually for free at annualcreditreport.com. Review each report to be sure there are no lines of credit or credit cards that have been opened that you don’t recognize. If you see any unknown credit, contact the creditor directly to find out what’s going on. Also check the addresses – thieves sometimes file a change of address form so they can obtain credit cards at their home in your name. If anything is wrong, correct it with the agency (Equifax, Experian, or TransUnion). Also, it’s a good idea to review your credit card charges monthly to be sure there are no unknown charges.
Defend. If you have been the victim of fraud, consider placing a fraud alert on your credit by calling any one of the credit agencies (who will alert the other two). Anytime someone attempts to open or increase credit in your name in the next 90 days, the bank or merchant must take steps to verify that it is you. Close any accounts that you suspect or know have been tampered with, and take steps to correct your credit report. See ftc.gov for more information about dealing with identity theft.
Being aware of how identity theft works and taking simple steps to protect yourself is the most important thing you can do to protect yourself.