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Protecting Yourself from Identity Theft

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:

    1. Pick up your mail daily to minimize the risk of it being stolen.
    2. Ask the Postal Service to hold your mail if you are going out of town.
    3. Make sure to shred correspondence, such as credit card offers or anything with your personal identifying information on it, before discarding it. Many people simply tear these materials in half, but a thief who is looking through your garbage can easily reconstruct the papers and complete the application using your identity.
    4. Place outgoing mail in a U.S. Postal Service mail receptacle, rather than your own mailbox. The flag on your mailbox that alerts the postman that you have outgoing mail also alerts identity thieves that you may have important documents such as checks or credit card numbers in your mailbox.

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.

    1. Carry only the credit or debit cards you need to use at the time. Leave others in a secure place. When in public, be aware of people around you who may be trying to read the numbers on your cards or checks. The thief does not have to be behind you in line to obtain these numbers. For example, some thieves will position themselves at a distance from an automatic teller machine and use binoculars or other technology to obtain your card number.
    2. Limit the information printed on your checks and store your checks in a secure place.
    3. Pick up new checks at the bank, rather than having them delivered to your home mail box.
    4. Review your billing statements or account statements each month and immediately report any fraudulent activity.
    5. Be very careful about giving out account numbers or other financial information.
    6. Do not give your personal information to anyone, unless you know who you are giving it to and why they need the information.

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:

    1. Be very careful about giving your personal information out over the phone, particularly when you are talking on a cell phone or cordless phone, even if you are talking with someone you know. Cell phones are not secure and calls can be intercepted purposefully or accidentally by other cell phone users. If you must share your personal information, and you are in a public place, make sure to hold your voice down and be aware that people around you may be listening to your conversation.
    2. Be wary of giving your personal information to a person or company that contacts you (as opposed to one you contact). Ask the person to give you a number you can call to verify his/her identity, and ask the person to send you any information they would like you to consider in writing.
    3. Do not give your personal information to anyone, unless you know who you are giving it to and why they need the information.
    4. If you want to cut down on the number of sales calls you receive, register with the National Do-Not-Call Registry website or call 1-888-382-1222. To register for the Tennessee Do Not Call program, visit the TRA website or call 1- 877-872-7030 from your home phone.

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:

    1. Be very careful about giving out any personal information over the Internet. Never give out personal information unless you are using a secure website. You may determine if a website is secure by looking at the beginning of the web address in your browser's address bar - it should read "https://" instead of "http://". You may also look to the bottom right of your screen for a padlock symbol.
    2. When making purchases over the Internet, consider using a credit or charge card, so that you will have the protection of the Fair Credit Billing Act. This Act is a federal law which provides protections to consumers who have billing errors on open end accounts. Billing errors include things such as unauthorized charges, charges for items the consumer never received and credits/payments that have not posted to the account. For more information about this and other federal protections, visit the Federal Trade Commission website.
    3. Identity thieves use a method called "phishing" in their attempts to obtain your personal information. Phishing is the use of fraudulent emails or websites which are designed to look like legitimate bank, retail or credit card company e-mails websites. Usually, an identity thief will send an email purporting to be from a legitimate company and will urgently request you to provide your account number, password and/or Social Security number via a link in the email. Companies that you do business with that require this type of information already have it. If you receive a suspicious email, do not use the link provided in the email which directs you to a website. Instead, type the web address from the email into your web browser or call the company to find out if they sent the email. Do not fill out forms requesting personal information over the Internet unless you know for certain that the email is legitimate.

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:

    1. Be very cautious about giving out your Social Security number. If someone asks you for it, ask him/her why the number is needed, what will happen if you do not provide the number, etc.
    2. Do not carry your Social Security card in your wallet. Store it in a safe place, and take it out only when you know that you will need it, such as when starting a new job.
    3. Resist allowing your Social Security number to be used for identification.

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 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.

    1. Contact any of the three credit bureaus, Experian, Equifax or TransUnion, and place a fraud alert on your credit report. The fraud alert tells creditors to contact you before opening any new accounts or making any changes to your existing accounts. You only need to contact one of the three companies to place the alert. The company you call is required to contact the other two, which will place an alert on their versions of your report, too. Once you place the fraud alert in your file, you're entitled to order free copies of your credit reports, and, if you ask, only the last four digits of your Social Security number will appear on your credit reports.

      Experian 1-888-397-3742
      Equifax 1-800-685-1111
      TransUnion 1-800-916-8800

    2. File reports of the theft with law enforcement and the Federal Trade Commission. Many creditors will require you to provide them with a police report to document the crime. It is important to contact law enforcement as soon as possible and that you be prepared to provide them with any documentation you have of the fraud. The FTC maintains a database of identity theft cases used by law enforcement for investigations. Filing a complaint will help the FTC learn more about identity theft and the problems that victims encounter.
    3. Contact banks, credit card issuers and other creditors. If you discover that accounts have been opened using your identity or that your existing accounts have been tampered with, it is imperative that you promptly contact each of your creditors. Close the accounts that you know or believe have been tampered with or opened fraudulently. Make initial contact by telephone and follow up with written letters and documentation. All information sent to creditors should be sent by certified mail, return receipt requested and should be sent to the "billing inquiries" address provided by the creditor. You should maintain copies of everything you mail and keep the originals of documentation, such as account statements and police reports, for your records. If creditors require additional documentation, ask them if they accept the FTC's ID Theft Affidavit, available on the FTC website.

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

Credit Bureaus

Equifax: 1-800-525-6285
Experian: 1-888-397-3742
Trans Union: 1-800-680-7289