What is identity theft?
Identity theft occurs when someone uses someone else’s identifying information without that person’s consent, for the purpose of profiting unlawfully.
What are some typical examples of identity theft?
Identity theft occurs in many ways. Someone may steal identifying information of a U.S. citizen in order to sell it to someone else who is in the country illegally and who needs ID in order to work. Identity theft can occur when someone who receives Social Security retirement checks dies — and the person’s family or caregiver intentionally never tells the Social Security Administration to stop sending monthly checks. Some identity thieves “take over” one of your credit cards and run up a huge bill; or find a way to write checks on your bank account; or use your credit card as proof of “creditworthiness” in opening more credit card accounts in your name, or in borrowing large amounts of money under your name.
Who is likely to be an identity thief?
The thief can be anyone who has access to your unique identifying information — your Social Security or Medicare number, your bank account number, your credit card information. That means that the thief could be someone who works at your corner store, someone in a doctor’s office, someone who grabs mail from your home mailbox, someone who “hacks” into supposedly secure computer data bases to obtain credit card information or other unique identifying information. Not even the national credit reporting agencies are immune from phony “landlords” or “merchants” who call in to get credit information about someone they claim is a potential tenant or customer.
Whom do identity thieves target?
According to the FBI, identity thieves target older persons nine times out of ten. Older people have more assets than younger people, and often have better credit.
In addition, older people are more likely to have landline telephones — making it easy for thieves to learn their addresses and to call them with “get-rich-quick” offers or requests for donations to a fake charity, just to learn identifying information that can be used in financial crimes.
Why has identity theft become so common?
Changes in technology have helped make identity theft easy and profitable, too. Computer “hackers” steal personal information from many sources. In addition, many identity thieves use the Internet to persuade innocent people to turn over information voluntarily — by pretending in an e-mail message to be the Social Security Administration, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the IRS, your bank or your credit card company. Often these messages claim that your personal information has been lost or stolen, and that the agency or business needs to “update” your private information. They tell you to submit that information to a website that looks like — but isn’t — the official agency they claim to be.
It is important to remember that real government agencies and legitimate businesses never ask either by e-mail or on the phone for this kind of information.
How would I know if my identity has been stolen?
You could find out in several ways: your checks suddenly bounce; your credit card bill suddenly goes sky-high; you hear from a collection agency or business demanding payment for something you never bought. Although your credit has always been good, you may get turned down for a mortgage or a car loan. You may apply for unemployment benefits only to be told that “you” have already used up your benefits. A few people have found out their identity was stolen when a police officer knocked on their doors — ready to arrest them for a crime committed by someone who has been using their name!
What can I do to avoid becoming a victim of identity theft?
There are many things you can do to minimize the chance that you will fall prey to an identity thief:
Use a secure mailbox — either a locked one at your home or a post office box.
Shred all identifying information that you receive in the mail or that appears on medical bills and credit card and other receipts.
If you have a landline phone, put your name on the national “do not call” list. The list keeps most solicitors away for five years. Once your name is on the list, legitimate businesses will no longer call you. Unfortunately, that means that the odds are very high anyone who does call you is a crook. Remember that the “do not call” list doesn’t limit political campaigns or charities from calling you — and that it is impossible to tell a real charity from a fake charity on the phone. It is a good idea to not to succumb to telephone requests for contributions. The amount the caller asks for may be small, but the damage that person can do to your credit after getting your personal information can be very serious. Remember also that your registration on the do-not-call list ends after five years. You must renew your registration to keep callers away.
Lock checkbooks, passports, credit card information, bank statements, your Social Security and Medicare cards, and anything else with identifying information on it, in a safe place, where caregivers and others cannot get them.
Don’t carry your Social Security or Medicare card with you.
Ask doctors and others to remove the first five digits of your Social Security number from their records.
Read your bills, bank statements, credit card statements and Medicare Explanation of Benefits statements as soon as you get them, to see if there is unusual activity or a medical procedure you don’t recognize.
If you have a choice, pay for things with cash. If you must use a card to pay, use a credit card rather than a debit card. If there is unauthorized use of your credit card, your liability is limited to $50. The only limit to the amount of money an identity thief can take from your bank account is the amount of money that is in the account.
Don’t send any identifying information over the Internet unless you have initiated the contact and the site is a “secure” one.
Ask for a copy of your credit report annually from the three main credit reporting agencies. You are entitled to a free copy once each year; if you believe you are the victim of identity theft, you are entitled to a free copy when you report the theft.
Avoid entering contests or sweepstakes and answering surveys that come in the mail or that you see online. The more contacts you make online, the more likely it is that someone will be able to hack into your information somewhere.
What do I do if I find out I am a victim of identity theft?
There are several things you should do, and the sooner you do them the better:
Contact the police to make a report, and get a copy of the report.
Close any accounts that you think someone has accessed or set up fraudulently.
Send a notice about the identity theft to the three national credit reporting agencies, enclosing a copy of the police report.
Send a copy of this notice and the police report to the Federal Trade Commission.
Ask the credit reporting agencies to put a 90-day “fraud alert” on your account, or, for better security, a “freeze” on your account. A freeze will mean that no one without a special personal identification number from you can get credit bureau records. If you get a new creditor, however, you must “thaw” your account so it can verify your payment history. Note that this service is not free.
Legal editor: Janay Haas, July 2009
Updated November 2011