It's a scary thought, but someone may be out there pretending to be you. He could be living on your street, in a neighboring state, or even overseas racking up thousands of dollars of debt on your credit cards or taking out loans in your name to buy a car or house. How does he do it, and how do you stop him?
ID Theft Basics
The Consumer Sentinel Network (CSN) is a secure online database of millions of consumer complaints received by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Internet Crime Center, Better Business Bureaus, and others. In 2009, CSN took over 1.3 million complaints, with 21% of them relating to identity theft or fraud.
According to FTC reports, millions of Americans each year have their identities stolen. Thieves somehow get personal information from their victims - like credit card, bank account, and social security numbers - and use the information to commit fraud or other crimes. How do they get that information? All sorts of ways, such as:
Shoulder surfing, where a thief watches you punch in the numbers of a credit card into your computer or cell phone or listens to you as read it out loud over your phone
Dumpster diving - going through your garbage cans or a dumpster or trash bin you use at work to get things like canceled checks, bank and credit card statements, and other information-rich papers, like pre-approved credit card applications with personalized code numbers
Phishing and other internet scams where you're tricked into giving out personal information in emails or web sites, or hackers gain access to information stored on your computer
These are just a few examples of how your information may fall into the wrong hands.
There are a number of things you can do to protect yourself from becoming a victim, such as:
- Educate yourself. Learn all you can about identity theft as soon as possible from resources like the FTC and US Department of Justice, as well as private organizations like Identity Theft Resource Center
- Shed documents like old bank statements and checks and credit card bills and applications, rather than just throwing them in the trash. Buy a shredder, or call an office supply store in your area and ask about shredding services
- Don't leave mail in your box for the mail carrier to pick up unless your mailbox locks. Also, get your delivered mail each day as early as possible
- Report lost or stolen credit cards as soon possible
- Compare your receipts with your credit card bills each month; balance your checkbook each month, too. Make sure the transactions on your monthly statement match your check registry
- Know who's around you when you're in public. Look around and see if anyone can see or overhear you while you're using your sending personal information over your phone or computer. Only give that information to people and businesses you know and trust
- Check your credit report each year. It's free! And contact your credit card companies immediately if you see any errors
- Consider using a credit monitoring service
If you've been the victim of identity theft or fraud or suspect a problem, there are a number of things you can do:
- File a report or complaint with the FTC, your state attorney general's office, and your local police department as soon as possible
- Contact credit card companies immediately if you get a new card or account that you didn't apply for
- Place a fraud alert on all of your credit reports and check your reports periodically - at least once per year, but every 90 days would be better
- Close any credit card or bank account you think has been accessed or used without your permission
- Depending on what information of yours was stolen and used by a thief, contact the Social Security Administration, IRS, or US Postal Service
Identity theft can cost you a lot of money and stress. Save both by doing what you can to keep from falling victim to a thief. If you do fall victim, do everything you can to minimize your losses and take back what's yours.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Can I sue the person who stole my identity? What if he stole my child's identity?
- Does the local police department have to investigate my ID theft complaint? Is it required to keep me updated?
- Is a credit monitoring agency liable if my identity is stolen while I'm a paid subscriber?