How to Avoid Becoming a Victim of Identity Theft

Identity theft is one of the fastest growing crimes in the United States, with as many as 17.6 million victims every year, according to the latest statistics from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). Identity theft is a type of fraud in which a thief uses your personal information to conduct transactions in your name. Thieves may, for example, steal your identifying information to open or empty bank accounts, obtain credit cards, or take out loans.

Identity Theft

There are steps you can take to reduce the risk of having your personal information stolen, as well as ways to detect a theft early and minimize the damage to your credit.

  • Monitor your credit reports, checking regularly for any suspicious transactions. Under Federal law, each of the three major credit bureaus, Experian, Equifax, and Trans-Union, must provide consumers with a free annual credit report, upon request. You can access the reports through one website co-sponsored by the agencies, annualcreditreport.com ». A thorough review of these reports, also known as credit file disclosures, can reveal any unusual activity.
  • Do not provide sensitive data in response to e-mail or telephone solicitations. If you are interested in an offer, take down the caller’s contact information and verify that the company is legitimate before revealing your identifying information. You can bar telemarketers from calling you by registering your phone number with the Do Not Call Registry at donotcall.gov ».
  • Filter unwanted e-mail by installing anti-spam software on your computer. For further protection, install firewall and antivirus software programs that include automatic updates. Use a secure browser when conducting online transactions.
  • Invest in a mailbox with a lock or rent a P.O. box. Thieves have been known to intercept confidential correspondence and offers from financial services companies. Be sure to store sensitive information in a secure place in your home.
  • Destroy records containing private financial information by tearing or shredding, and do not dispose of credit card receipts or ATM statements in public trash receptacles. Thieves have been known to “dumpster dive” to obtain the details they need to commit fraud.
  • Protect your accounts with passwords or access numbers that cannot be easily deduced. Avoid using your Social Security number, your birth date, your phone number, your mother’s maiden name, your children’s names, or a series of consecutive numbers. Never carry your Social Security number or passwords with you.
  • Before disclosing identifying information to businesses, employers, or other institutions, ask how the information will be handled and stored.
  • If your license or another form of identification is stolen, contact the appropriate agency immediately to cancel the identification and order a new one.
  • Keep close track of your credit and ATM cards. Check your credit card and bank statements carefully for any suspicious purchases or withdrawals.

If you have reason to believe your identity has been misused, report the theft immediately to the fraud department of one of the three major credit bureaus and ask them to place a “fraud alert” on your file. This alert will prompt creditors to contact you before allowing a new account to be opened in your name or an existing account to be altered. Calling just one bureau is sufficient, as the company you contact will report the problem to the other two bureaus. After placing the fraud alert on your file, you will be entitled to request one free copy of your credit report from each of the credit agencies, even if you have already received reports that year.

Also, immediately contact creditors or other companies with accounts in your name that may have been affected by the fraud, instructing them to close the accounts immediately. The next step is to file a report of the theft with the police in the community where the crime was committed. Finally, file a complaint with the FTC, which maintains a database used by police and other law enforcement officials for identity theft investigations. Be sure to keep detailed records of your communications with creditors and other authorities regarding the theft. To learn more about identity theft, visit the FTC website at ftc.gov ».