If someone uses your personally identifying information - like your name, social security number or credit card number - without your permission, then you're a victim of identity theft. Identity thieves might use your information to obtain a credit card, rent an apartment or establish other accounts in your name.
Often, victims don't realize their identity has been stolen until a bill collector contacts them, they're denied credit or they review their credit report. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) estimates that as many as nine million Americans have their identities stolen each year.
Because identity theft is such a serious crime and can take so much time and effort to resolve, it's important to protect your personal information.
Thieves usually obtain information about you through:
- Skimming. Thieves steal credit/debit card numbers by using a special storage device when your card is processed. Always try to scan your credit/debit card yourself, and if the machine looks suspicious, pay in cash or write a check.
- Phishing. Thieves pretend to be with a financial institution or other familiar company and send you an e-mail requesting personal information, normally to "resolve a problem." Never send personal information via e-mail. If you receive a phishing attempt, call the company yourself, using a telephone number you have on file, not a number that appears in the message. No legitimate company would ever ask for personally identifying information via unsecure e-mail.
- Dumpster Diving. Thieves often rummage through trash looking for bills, credit card statements, pay stubs or other paper with your personal information. Shred all such documents before discarding.
- Changing your address. Thieves might try to divert your billing statements to another location by completing a change-of-address form. If you notice you're not receiving mail, especially bills, contact the U.S. Postal Service to see if there is a problem.
- Stealing. Pickpockets can use the information obtained from your wallet, purse, mail, etc., to steal your identity. Keep a close eye on your personal items, and contact your bank and credit card companies immediately if your wallet or purse is stolen. Make a copy of the front and back of each card you carry and keep them in a safe place to make contacting the companies easier.
- Pretexting. Thieves often use false pretenses - such as a "problem with your account" - to call you and ask for personal information. If you receive such a call, hang up and call the company back using a telephone number you already have on file. Do not use a number given to you by the suspicious caller.
If you become a victim, take the following steps immediately:
- Place a fraud alert on your accounts by contacting one of the three major credit bureaus: TransUnion (1-800-680-7289), Equifax (1-800-525-6285) or Experian (1-888-397-3742). The bureau you contact will notify the other two. You can then receive a free report from each company and, if you ask, only the last four digits of your social security number will be shown . Make any corrections necessary with the bureaus. Then, continue to check your credit reports periodically, especially during for the first year after the theft, to make sure no new fraudulent activity appears.
- Close the accounts that you know have been opened fraudulently. Call the security or fraud department of each company and follow up in writing. Use certified mail to send the notices, and request a return receipt so you can document that the company has received your notice.
- File a police report. Make sure that you receive a copy, or at least the number on the report, as the companies you contact might request this information.
- Call the Social Security Administration's Fraud Line, if anything with your Social Security number on it was taken at 1-800-269-0271.
- File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC can refer your complaint to other government agencies and companies for further action. Call them at 1-877-438-4338 or www.consumer.gov/idtheft. Their website is also the best source for identify theft guidance.
It's essential to maintain careful records of all of your actions. Keep copies of all correspondence, a telephone log with the date you contacted a company, the name of the person contacted and a summary of each call, to prove that you have been an identity theft victim.