What is Identity Theft?
Identity theft occurs when someone intercepts or steals your personal identifying information. Many identity thieves use stolen information to open credit card accounts in your name, to apply for utilities and cell phones in your name, to access your current financial accounts or to borrow money or make major purchases - such as homes or cars - in your name. Some identity thieves may even use your identity in the commission of a crime or when arrested or interrogated.
Identity theft is a federal crime. Federal law provides many protections for victims of identity theft. These protections may help limit the actual financial losses you may suffer as a victim of identity theft. You can learn more about these protections by visiting the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) website or by calling 1-877-IDTHEFT.
Identity theft can damage your good name and credit, as well as expose you to potential financial loss. It can lead to a criminal record in your name, an arrest, having your driver's license revoked or your wages garnished. You could also be denied employment or a place to live. Despite the best efforts of law enforcement, identity thieves often evade arrest. The thieves' victims are the ones who pay the biggest price, in time, inconvenience, stress and financial loss.
Between 2002 and 2004 the estimated costs of financial identity fraud to United States businesses rose from $35 billion to over $50 billion. As well, in 2002, the average out of pocket loss per identity theft victim was $1,173, plus 175 hours of personal time. By 2004, those numbers had risen to $1,400 and 600 hours of personal time.
Protect Yourself from Identity Theft
There are many ways in which an identity thief can obtain your personal information. A thief may steal your wallet, purse, checkbook or mail. They may go "dumpster diving" for discarded documents containing personal information or "shoulder surfing" to read your credit or debit card numbers as you use those cards. Thieves may obtain your information from cashiers or merchants or find your information in your home or workplace. Additionally, identity thieves may hack your computer, listen to your phone conversations or fraudulently obtain your credit report.
Below is a list of steps you can take to reduce the likelihood of your identity being stolen. This is not an exhaustive list, and unfortunately, even if you are constantly vigilant, you may still become an identity theft victim.
Secure Your Mail
Most Americans receive "junk mail" on a daily basis, including pre-approved credit card offers. Some of this junk mail could wreak havoc on your life if it falls into the wrong hands. Therefore, you should:
Protect your Personal Information
All of your personal identifying information should be protected, whether it is financial information, your Social Security number, birth date or other, similar information. Secure personal information in your home, especially if you have roommates, employ outside help, are having work done at your home or if you have visitors in your home.
Ask about information security procedures in your workplace or at businesses, doctor's offices or other institutions that collect your personal identifying information. Find out who has access to your personal information and verify that it is handled securely. Ask about the disposal procedures for those records as well, because identity thieves can obtain your information if a business improperly disposes of documents containing your personal information. Find out if your information will be shared with anyone else. If so, ask how your information can be kept confidential.
Prevent identity thieves from being able to access your personal information by going through your trash or recycling bins. Shred your charge receipts, copies of credit applications, insurance forms, physician statements, checks and bank statements, expired charge cards and credit offers you receive in the mail.
Keep your purse or wallet in a safe place at work. Do the same with copies of administrative forms that contain your sensitive personal information.
Keep your Financial Information Private
In today's market, many people do not carry large amounts of cash, but rely instead on their ability to use credit and debit cards and write checks. These payment options are valuable tools, but you should be careful when using them to ensure that your information does not fall into the wrong hands. These tips may help you limit the risk of someone gaining access to your credit and debit cards and checks and/or the information printed on them.
Privacy and Telephone Calls
Cell phones and cordless phones have become a part of life in America, and they are very useful. Most people do not give a second thought to discussing their personal lives on these phones, even though their privacy is not guaranteed. People are likely to believe that callers are who they say they are. To avoid having prying ears hear your personal information, and to ensure that you do not inadvertently offer your personal information to identity thieves, here are some tips for handling your affairs over the telephone:
Use the Internet Carefully
The Internet is an amazing tool that allows us to find information easily. Unfortunately, it is also a tool used by identity thieves to find out information about you. There are a number of ways that identity thieves can try to take advantage of your Internet use. To avoid having your personal information stolen over the Internet, keep these tips in mind:
Protect your Social Security Number
Your Social Security number is a key number that identifies you. If an identity thief obtains your Social Security number, he can use it in any number of ways to destroy your credit and to steal your identity and your money. To avoid having your Social Security number stolen, follow these tips:
Monitor your Credit Report
Even if you follow all of these tips, there is no way to guarantee that your identity won't be stolen. Victims of identity theft often do not realize that their information has been stolen until they receive a collection notice or are turned down for a loan or job based on poor credit. To keep this from happening to you, check your credit report periodically. If you find anything on your credit report that should not be there, take action immediately. As of June 1, 2005, Tennessee consumers are entitled to a free credit report from each of the credit bureaus once every twelve months. To obtain your free credit report, call 1-877-322-8228 or go to the AnnualCreditReport.com website.
Active Duty Alert
If you are a member of the military and away from your usual duty station, you may place an active duty alert on your credit reports to help minimize the risk of identity theft while you are deployed. Active duty alerts are in effect on your report for one year. If your deployment lasts longer, you can place another alert on your credit report.
When you place an active duty alert, you will be removed from the credit reporting companies' marketing list for pre-screened credit card offers for two years unless you ask to go back to the list before then. You may use a personal representative to place or remove an alert.
What to do if your Identity is Stolen
If you learn that your identity has been stolen, take action immediately. The three steps listed below should be taken immediately to limit damage and protect your rights. Everyone's situation is unique, so additional steps may be required to resolve your problem.
Other Steps to Take if your Identity has been Stolen
Once you close accounts that may have been fraudulently opened or tampered with, you may need to open new financial accounts. When opening new accounts, place passwords on them. Avoid using your mother's maiden name, your birth date, the last four digits of your Social Security number or consecutive numbers for your password.
You may also need to replace your driver's license or other government issued identification. Contact the agency that issued the identification document. Follow the agency's procedure to cancel the document and to get a replacement. Ask the agency to flag your file so that no one else can get a license or identification from them in your name.
Contact Information - Government Agencies
Tennessee Division of Consumer Affairs: 1-800-342-8385 (from within Tennessee) or 615-741-4737
Federal Trade Commission: 1-877-IDTHEFT
United States Postal Inspector: 404-608-4500
Social Security Administration: 1-800-772-1213
Trans Union: 1-800-680-7289