My purse was stolen in December 1990. In February 1991, I started getting notices of bounced checks. About a year later, I receive information that someone using my identity had defaulted on a number of lease agreements and bought a car. In 1997, I learned that someone had been working under my Social Security number for a number of years. A man had been arrested and used my SSN on his arrest sheet. There's a hit in the FBI computers for my SSN with a different name and gender. I can't get credit because of this situation. I was denied a mortgage loan, employment, credit cards, and medical care for my children. I've even had auto insurance denied, medical insurance and tuition assistance denied.
From a consumer complaint to the Federal Trade Commission, January 2, 2001
This is one extreme but not unheard of complaints received by the FTC on identity theft. This example is an unpleasant reminder that identity theft is real and the very nature of the theft disrupts almost every fabric of our lives. The 1990's spawned a new variety of crooks called identity thieves. Identity thieves use a victim's personal information to run up debt in the victim's name, enter into contracts, and apply for public and private benefits. The resulting financial and credit problems can require a great deal of time and expense to resolve. Therefore, it is important to know how to reduce the risk of identity theft, and to mitigate resulting harm when it does happen.
Aside from picking your pockets or purse, which is filled with a goldmine of information, ID thieves engage in other techniques to obtain your personal information:
- They steal your mail from your mailbox, including bank statements and pre-approved credit offers.
- They complete a change of address form to divert your mail to another location.
- They fraudulently obtain your credit report by posing as a landlord, employer or someone else who may have a legitimate reason for, and legal right to, the information.
Minimize Your Risk
There are many immediate steps you can take to reduce risk of identity theft. Some examples are:
- Don't give your personal information to anyone unless they have a definite, legitimate need to know it. Give your SSN only when absolutely necessary. Don't carry your social security card with you if you don't need it. Carry only the ID and credit cards you'll actually need.
- Don't give out personal information on the phone, through the mail or over the Internet unless you're sure of whom you're dealing with. Even when dealing with legitimate businesses and organizations, check their policies regarding personal information first.
- Place passwords on your credit card, bank, and phone accounts.
- If you lose a credit card, ATM card, or checks (or if any of these items are stolen), contact the company or bank immediately. Your degree of liability may depend on how quickly you provide notice of the loss or theft. Cancel the corresponding accounts and/or stop payment on the lost checks.
- Pay attention to billing cycles. Contact creditors if your bills don't show up on time.
- Guard your mail and trash from theft. Destroy sensitive documents before discarding them.
- If you shop online, use a secure Internet browser, an up-to-date antivirus program, and a good Internet security (or "firewall") program. Before selling or discarding a computer, remove all personal files with a "wipe"utility program (files that are simply deleted can be recovered). For more information, see Clearing Information From Your Computer's Hard Drive (www.hq.nasa.gov/office/oig/hq/harddrive.pdf) from NASA.
- Request to no longer receive unsolicited telemarketing calls, mail and email, and pre-screened credit offers (to do so, call 1-888-5OPTOUT (1-888-567-8688) and visit the Direct Marketing Association website - www.the-dma.org/consumers/offmailinglist.html. Opt out of personal information sharing by the three major credit-reporting bureaus.
- Be wary of unsolicited promotional offers. Identity thieves sometimes contact people with phony offers, and try to fool the victim into giving them personal information in order to claim a nonexistent "prize."
- â€¢ If your planning to be away form home and can't pick up your mail, call the U.S. Postal Service at 1-800-275-8777 to request a vacation hold. The Postal Service will hold your mail at your local post office until you can pick it up or are home to receive it.
Monitor for Identity Theft
Identity theft is insidious. Victims may not even realize the crime is occurring until after the thief has run up thousands of dollars of debt. It is important to regularly check for signs of identity theft, and act quickly when it is detected.
The best way to check for identity theft is to get a copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus (see list at the end of this article). By law, credit bureaus can charge you no more than $9 for a copy of your report. This should be done at least annually (or more frequently if you believe your personal information may have been compromised). Ensure your report is accurate and includes only those activities you have authorized. If your credit report references transactions or events you are unaware of and did not authorize, you may be a victim of identity theft. Under Georgia legislation, consumers have the right to a free copy of their credit report annually upon request from nation's three major credit bureaus -- Equinox Inc., Experian Information Solutions Inc. and Trans Union.
The importance of regularly checking one's credit report cannot be over-stressed. If you don't regularly check your credit "health," the first notice you get of identity theft may be when debt collectors start calling you about unpaid loans that you never authorized.
Take Corrective Action if You're a Victim
If you discover that you are a victim of identity theft, it is important that you take quick and decisive action to prevent further harm. The following steps should be taken immediately upon discovery that one has been victimized:
- FIRST: Contact the fraud departments of each of the three major credit bureaus. For more information on disputing credit reports, log on to www.consumer.gov/idtheft. Contact them by phone, and follow up immediately in writing (by fax and certified mail). Tell them you're a victim of identity theft. Request that a fraud alert be placed in your credit file, as well as a victim's statement that asks creditors to call you before opening any new accounts or changing your existing accounts. This can help prevent the identity thief from doing further damage. (If you have not already done so, order a copy of your credit report from the three major credit bureaus as well.)
- SECOND: Close the accounts that you know or believe have been tampered with or opened fraudulently. Promptly report the fraud to all companies and banks involved by phone, and (again) follow up immediately in writing by both fax and certified mail (some banks/companies may require use of a particular fraud reporting form -if not, send a letter or, preferably, an affidavit). If your checks have been misused, stop payment and ask your bank to notify its check verification service. It is important to act quickly. Your degree of liability for fraudulent transactions may depend on how soon you notify the involved companies and/or banks that your personal information has been compromised.
- THIRD: File a police report with your local police or the police in the community where the identity theft took place. Get a copy of the police report (if you are unable to get a copy, at least get the report number). Local authorities may tell you that they can't take a report. Stress the importance of a police report and be persistent. If not the city police, there are the county and state police.
- Victims of identity theft should also contact their servicing Legal Assistance Office (LAO) as soon as possible after notifying the parties involved (as discussed above). A Legal Assistance Attorney can provide further information about potential legal rights and options for identity theft victims, and can provide guidance on steps to recovery.
Recovering From Identity Theft
Long-term recovery from identity theft can be expensive and time-consuming. Victims must work with credit bureaus, banks, and businesses to establish which transactions they are not responsible for. Victims must prove to these banks and businesses that they are actually victims, not deadbeats using excuses to avoid paying debts. This requires documentary evidence of the crime, usually a police report or an "identity theft affidavit" (a document in which the victim states under oath that he did not authorize the fraudulent transactions). Receipts and financial records are also helpful. Victims should ensure that they keep copies of all documents related to their case.
Where to Go for Further Help and Information
If you want more information, contact your servicing Legal Assistance Office (LAO). Information is also available on the Federal Trade Commission's Identity Theft website ( www.consumer.gov/idtheft). Or, call 1-877-IDTHEFT (438-4338) for assistance from counselors who will take your complaint and advise you on how to deal with the credit-related problems that could result. Moreover, FTC, in conjunction with credit grantors and other organizations, has developed the ID Theft Affidavit to assist victims of ID theft restore their good name. The Affidavit can be used to report information to organizations such as your bank simplifying the process of disputing charges from accounts you did not open. For a copy of the Affidavit, go to www.consumer.gov/idtheft. If the organization does not accept the form Affidavit, ask for their fraud dispute forms.
Remember, seeing a lawyer early may not only solve a problem you have, it may resolve or avoid a problem in the future.
MAJOR CREDIT BUREAUS
To Request Credit Report: 1-800-685-1111
To Report Fraud,
Write: P.O. Box 740241, Atlanta GA 30374-0241
To Request Credit Report: 1-888-EXPERIA (397-3742)
To Report Fraud,
Call: 1-888-EXPERIA (397-3742)
Write: P.O. Box 9532, Allen TX 75013
To Request Credit Report: 1-800-888-4213
To Report Fraud,
Write: Fraud Victim Assistance Department, P.O. Box, 6790, Fullerton CA 92634-6790