Identity Theft FAQ

What is Identity theft?

Identity theft is the acquisition of personal information belonging to another individual and use of that information to act "as if" the user were that person. Personal information includes identification such as name, online alias, social security number, birthdate, account number, or any other personally identifying information. Actions taken by an identity thief may include use of existing financial accounts, opening of new financial accounts (especially credit cards) in the name of the victim, and posing as the victim in online forums.

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How Can I Tell if I'm a Victim of Identity Theft?

You can discover evidence of identity theft by finding actions taken in your name or on your accounts that you did not perform. Monitor the balances of your financial accounts and look for unexplained charges or withdrawals. Also, If an identity thief is opening new credit accounts in your name, these accounts are likely to show up on your credit report. You can check for this by ordering a free copy of your credit report from any of three major credit bureaus. If you find inaccurate information, check your reports from the other two credit bureaus. A recent amendment to the Fair Credit Reporting Act entitles all individuals living in the United States of America to receive a free credit report, at their request, once every twelve months from each of the three nationwide credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and Transunion. (Note: If your personal information has been lost or stolen, you may want to check all of your reports more frequently for the first year. Federal law allows credit bureaus to charge you up to $9 for a copy of your credit report. Some states may allow a free report or reduced rates.) Keep in mind, some inaccuracies on your credit reports may be because of computer, clerical, or other errors and may not be a result of identity theft.

Other indications of identity theft:

  • Failing to receive bills or other mail, signaling an address change by the identity thief;
  • Receiving credit cards for which you did not apply;
  • Denial of credit for no apparent reason; or
  • Receiving calls from debt collectors or companies about goods or services you did not buy.

How can I keep my personal information safe?

Exercise caution and prudence with your personal information.

  • Activate passwords on your credit card, bank and phone accounts. Do not share account numbers or passwords with anyone and do not write them in a place where they can be found by others. When creating your passwords, avoid using easily available information like your mother's maiden name, your birth date, the last four digits of your SSN or your phone number, or a series of consecutive numbers. When you're asked for your mother's maiden name on an application for a new account, try using a password instead.
  • Secure personal information in your home, especially if you have roommates, employ outside help, or are having service work done in your home.
  • Ask about information security procedures in your workplace. Find out who has access to your personal information and verify that your records are kept in a secure location. Ask about the disposal procedures for those records as well.

What do I do if I've been a victim of identity theft?

Even if you've been very careful about keeping your personal information to yourself, an identity thief can strike. If you suspect that your personal information has been used to commit fraud or theft, take the following four steps right away. Remember to follow up all calls in writing; send your letter by certified mail, return receipt requested, so you can document what the company received and when; and keep copies for your files.

1. Place a fraud alert on your credit reports and review your credit reports.

Call the toll-free fraud number of anyone of the three major credit bureaus to place a fraud alert on your credit report. This can help prevent an identity thief from opening additional accounts in your name. As soon as the credit bureau confirms your fraud alert, the other two credit bureaus will automatically be notified to place fraud alerts on your credit report, and all three reports will be sent to you free of charge.

  • Equifax: 800-525-6285, P.O. Box 740241, Atlanta, GA 30374-0241
  • Experian: 1-888-EXPERIAN (397-3742), P.O. Box 9532, Allen, TX 75013
  • TransUnion: 1-800-680-7289, Fraud Victim Assistance Division, P.O. Box 6790, Fullerton, CA 92834-6790

Once you receive your reports, review them carefully. Look for inquiries you did not initiate, accounts you did not open, and unexplained debts on your true accounts. You also should check that information such as your SSN, address(es), name or initial, and employers are correct. Inaccuracies in this information also may be due to typographical errors. Nevertheless, whether the inaccuracies are due to fraud or error, you should notify the credit bureau as soon as possible by telephone and in writing.

You should continue to check your reports periodically, especially in the first year after you've discovered the theft, to make sure no new fraudulent activity has occurred. The automated "one-call" fraud alert process only works for the initial placement of your fraud alert. Orders for additional credit reports or renewals of your fraud alerts must be made separately at each of the three major credit bureaus.

2. Close any accounts that have been tampered with or opened fraudulently.

Credit Accounts

Credit accounts include all accounts with banks, credit card companies and other lenders, and phone companies, utilities, ISPs, and other service providers.
If you're closing existing accounts and opening new ones, use new Personal Identification Numbers (PINs) and passwords.

If there are fraudulent charges or debits, ask the company about the following forms for disputing those transactions.

  • For new unauthorized accounts, ask if the company accepts the ID Theft Affidavit. If they don't, ask the representative to send you the company's fraud dispute forms.
  • For your existing accounts, ask the representative to send you the company's fraud dispute forms.

If your ATM card has been lost, stolen or otherwise compromised, cancel the card as soon as you can. Get a new card with a new PIN.

Checks

If your checks have been stolen or misused, close the account and ask your bank to notify the appropriate check verification service. While no federal law limits your losses if someone steals your checks and forges your signature, state laws may protect you.

Most states hold the bank responsible for losses from a forged check, but they also require you to take reasonable care of your account. For example, you may be held responsible for the forgery if you fail to notify the bank in a timely way that a check was lost or stolen. Contact your state banking or consumer protection agency for more information.

You also should contact these major check verification companies. Ask that retailers who use their databases not accept your checks.

  • TeleCheck: 800-710-9898 or 927-0188
  • Certegy, Inc.: 800-437-5120
  • International Check Services: 800-631-9656

Call SCAN at 800-262-7771 to find out if the identity thief has been passing bad checks in your name.

3. File a report with your local police or the police in the community where the identity theft took place.

Keep a copy of the report. You may need it to validate your claims to creditors. If you can't get a copy, at least get the report number.

4. File a complaint with the FTC.

By sharing your identity theft complaint with the FTC, you will provide important information that can help law enforcement officials track down identity thieves and stop them. The FTC also can refer victim complaints to other appropriate government agencies and companies for further action. The FTC enters the information you provide into our secure database.

To file a complaint or to learn more about the FTC's Privacy Policy, visit www.consumer.gov/idtheft. If you don't have access to the internet, you can call the FTC's Identity Theft Hotline at 1-877-IDTHEFT (438-4338); TDD: 202-326-2502; or write: Identity Theft Clearinghouse, Federal Trade Commission, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20580.

Additional information is available at http://www.fdic.gov/consumers/consumer/alerts/theft.html.

What can I do to stay safe online?

Your computer can be a goldmine of personal information to an identity thief. Here's how you can safeguard your computer and the personal information it stores:

  • Update your virus protection software regularly. Computer viruses can have damaging effects, including introducing program code that causes your computer to send out files or other stored information. Look for security repairs and patches you can download from your operating system's website.
  • Don't download files from strangers or click on hyperlinks from people you don't know. Opening a file could expose your system to a computer virus or a program that could hijack your modem.
  • Use a firewall, especially if you have a high-speed or "always on" connection to the internet. The firewall allows you to limit uninvited access to your computer. Without a firewall, hackers can take over your computer and access sensitive information.
  • Use a secure browser software that encrypts or scrambles information you send over the Internet to guard the safety of your online transactions. When you're submitting information, look for the "lock" icon on the status bar. It's a symbol that your information is secure during transmission.
  • Try not to store financial information on your laptop unless absolutely necessary. If you do, use a "strong" password; that is, a combination of letters (upper and lower case), numbers, and symbols.
  • Avoid using an automatic login feature that saves your user name and password; and always log off when you're finished. If your laptop gets stolen, the thief will have a hard time accessing sensitive information.
  • Delete any personal information stored on your computer before you dispose of it. Use a "wipe" utility program, which overwrites the entire hard drive and makes the files unrecoverable.
  • Read website privacy policies. They should answer questions about the access to and accuracy, security, and control of personal information the site collects, as well as how sensitive information will be used, and whether it will be provided to third parties.
  • Use optional security measures offered on secure websites, such as online banking sites. These may cause small inconveniences, but will help protect your information and your money.

A Special Word About Social Security Numbers

Your employer and financial institution will need your SSN for wage and tax reporting purposes and to meet Patriot Act identification requirements. Other private businesses may ask you for your SSN to do a credit check, such as when you apply for a car loan. Sometimes, however, they simply want your SSN for general record keeping. If someone asks for your SSN, ask the following questions:

  • Why do you need it?
  • How will it be used?
  • How do you protect it from being stolen?
  • What will happen if I don't give it to you?

If you don't provide your SSN, some businesses may not provide you with the service or benefit you want. Getting satisfactory answers to your questions will help you to decide whether you want to share your SSN with the business.

Everyday Diligence

Don't give out personal information on the phone, through the mail, or over the internet unless you've initiated the contact or are sure you know who you're dealing with. Identity thieves can be skilled liars, and may pose as representatives of banks, internet service providers (ISPs), or even government agencies to get you to reveal identifying information. Before you divulge any personal information, confirm that you're dealing with a legitimate representative of a legitimate organization. Double check by calling customer service using the number on your account statement or in the telephone book.

Guard your mail and trash from theft. Deposit outgoing mail in post office collection boxes or at your local post office instead of an unsecured mailbox. Remove mail from your mailbox promptly. If you are planning to be away from home and cannot pick up your mail, call the U.S. Postal Service at 1-800-275-8777 to ask for a vacation hold. To thwart a thief who may pick through your trash or recycling bins, tear or shred your charge receipts, copies of credit applications or offers, insurance forms, physician statements, checks and bank statements, and expired charge cards.

Before revealing any identifying information (for example, on an application), ask how it will be used and secured, and whether it will be shared with others. Find out if you have a say about the use of your information. For example, whether you can choose to have it kept confidential.

Keep your Social Security card in a secure place and give your SSN only when absolutely necessary. Ask to use other types of identifiers when possible. If your state uses your SSN as your driver's license number, ask to substitute another number.

Limit the identification information and the number of credit and debit cards that you carry to what you actually need.

Keep your purse or wallet in a safe place at work and when in public.

ID Theft Prevention