This document contains information on how to protect yourself from identity theft as well as what to do if your personal information becomes exposed or if you actually become a victim of identity theft. Links to additional information can be found under Resources.
What is Identity Theft?
It's someone using your personal information without your knowledge or consent to commit fraud or other crimes. It's someone using your name, address, birth date, driver's license number, Social Security number, account numbers, etc., to make purchases against your accounts, open up additional accounts, take out loans, or even apply for jobs.
Why is Identity Theft an issue now?
Thieves have been stealing wallets and credit cards for a long time, but the growth of online buying and on-line banking has made Identity Theft the fastest growing white collar crime in the U.S. It's a big problem, and it can happen to anyone.
How does Identity Theft happen?
- Going through your trash ("dumpster diving") for account numbers and other personal information
- Stealing your mail (credit card statements, credit card offers)
- Stealing your wallet/purse
- Online, the fastest growing issue is phishing, tricking you with an authentic-looking Web site to divulge personal and financial information.
What can I do to reduce my risk of Identity Theft?
- Be aware that someone may be trying to collect your personal and financial information. While you may not be financially liable if someone steals your credit card, it can take years to straighten out your records and credit rating. Prevention is a lot less expensive both in terms of time and money.
- Don't volunteer personal or financial information over the phone or online. If someone asks you for your Social Security number or your bank account number, warning flags should start waving in your head.
- Ask questions whenever you are asked for personal information that seems inappropriate for the transaction. Ask how the information will be used and if it will be shared. Ask how it will be protected. If you're not satisfied with the answers, don't give your personal information.
- Use caution when giving out your personal information. Scam artists "phish" for victims pretending to be banks, stores, or government agencies. They do this over the phone, in e-mail messages, and in postal mail.
- Know what's in your wallet or purse. If it were stolen, would you know who to notify? Keep a list in a safe place. When you go on vacation, leave unnecessary credit cards at home.
- Don't carry your Social Security card with you. Also check to see if other ID cards you carry are using your Social Security number as an identity number. If they are, ask the companies to change.
- Check your annual Social Security earnings statement for accuracy.
- Don't store your passwords or PIN numbers in your wallet, PDA, or cell phone. If you must write down a password, write down a hint as to what the password is instead. Protect the hints like you would your credit cards, and don't store them anywhere near your computer.
- Be careful with your mail. Don't leave your mail lying around where others can pick it up. The red flag on a home mailbox can be an invitation to thieves to steal your mail and obtain information on your account numbers, your checking account number, etc. Discontinue delivery while out of town.
- Pick up new checks at your bank or credit union. Don't have them mailed to your home where someone else might intercept them.
- Don't print your Social Security number or your driver's license number on your checks. Some sources also recommend not printing your phone number on checks.
- Check your credit card statements. Sometimes thieves will take a small amount (out of many accounts) in the hope that no one will notice or make the effort to track down the charges. If you don't receive a statement on time, call to check on if a thief may have processed a change of address in order to hide their tracks.
- Use a shredder for old bank statements and returned checks, credit card statements, pre-approved credit card offers and "convenience checks" that you don't use—anything that has personal information or account numbers.
- Don't let anyone else see your PIN number when you enter it at an ATM. Take all of your ATM and credit card receipts with you.
- Check your credit bureau reports at least annually. You need to check all three: TransUnion, Experian, and Equifax. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is requiring the credit bureaus to provide a free annual report. This is being phased in across the country. The free reports will be available for midwest residents on March 1, 2005. (See Resources)
- Stop pre-approved credit offers. Pre-approved credit card offers are a target for identity thieves who steal your mail. Have your name removed from credit bureau marketing lists. Call toll-free 888-5OPTOUT (888-567-8688).
- Ask your employer what they are doing to protect your privacy.
How to protect your on-line identity?
- Be aware! There are bad people out there trying to steal your information and your assets.
- The big 3: keep patches up-to-date; use anti-virus software; use a firewall (especially if you are connected to the Internet all the time as with a cable modem or DSL). Also use anti-spyware software (you may need more than one).
- Use strong passwords.
- Delete sensitive data off your hard drive.
- Before you dispose of an old computer, make sure you wipe the hard drive clean. Just deleting files or formatting the drive is not enough. (See Resources)
- Don't send private information in e-mail.
- Be aware of phishing scams. Don't open e-mail you aren't sure about, and don't click on web links in e-mail, they may look right but could send you somewhere else.
- Avoid peer-to-peer networks (e.g. music sharing programs) they are a great way to spread viruses and worms.
- Wireless networks are inherently less secure.
- Google yourself. You might find private information about you posted on a web site. If not, it's fun to find other interesting people around the world who share your name!
What to do if you think you're a victim of Identity Theft?
- Act as quickly as you can.
- Contact the companies where your identity may have been compromised--your credit card companies, your bank or credit union, state driver's license office, etc.
- Contact all three of the credit bureaus. When contacting the credit bureaus, you should request the following:
- Instruct them to flag your file with a fraud alert including a statement that creditors should get your permission before opening any new accounts in your name.
- Ask them for copies of your credit report(s). (Credit bureaus must give you a free copy of your report if it is inaccurate because of suspected fraud.) Review your reports carefully to make sure no additional fraudulent accounts have been opened in your name or unauthorized changes made to your existing accounts. NOTE: In order to ensure that you are issued free credit reports, strongly recommend you contact the agencies Direct Line for reporting fraud. It is not recommended that you order your credit report online.
- Be diligent in following up on your accounts. In the months following an incident, order new copies of your reports to verify your corrections and changes, and to make sure no new fraudulent activity has occurred.
- If you find that any accounts have been tampered with or opened fraudulently, close them immediately. To ensure that you do not become responsible for any debts or charges, use the ID Theft Affidavit Form developed by the Federal Trade Commission to help make your case with creditors.
- For more information, see the Minnesota Security Freeze Information web site. http://www.consumersunion.org/pdf/security/securityMN.pdf.
- Contact Social Security Administration SSA Fraud Hotline: 800-269-0271, http://www.ssa.gov/, if you are the victim of a stolen Social Security number. The SSA can provide information on how to report the fraudulent use of your number and how to correct your earnings record. We encourage you to contact the Fraud Hotline immediately once you suspect identity theft. The website also provides tips on using and securing your Social Security number. Visit the SSA website for advice on keeping your number safe.
- Contact ID Theft Clearinghouse 1-877-ID-THEFT (1-877-438-4338) toll free to report identity theft. Counselors will take your complaint and advise you how to deal with the credit-related problems that could result from identity theft.
- File a police report. It is important that you report identity theft to your local police department as soon as you become aware that you are a victim. Get a copy of the police report which will assist you when notifying creditors, credit reporting agencies and if necessary, the Social Security Administration (SSA).
- If you think your identity was stolen through the mail, contact the Post Office.
- File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.
- Keep a journal of everyone you contact, when, next steps, etc.
There are many good resources available online. Check your bank or credit union and credit card companies for information on Identity Theft. Your State Attorney General's office may also have useful information. Here are some other links.
The Credit Bureaus