I first was notified that someone had used my Social Security number for their taxes in February 2004. I also found out that this person opened a checking account, cable and utility accounts, and a cell phone account in my name. I'm still trying to clear up everything and just received my income tax refund after waiting four to five months. Trying to work and get all this cleared up is very stressful.
– Consumer complaint to the FTC
Of more than 1.3 million complaints the Federal Trade Commission received in 2010, 19 percent concerned identity theft. While agencies like the FTC and law enforcement do their best to catch and prosecute the perpetrators, the best defense against identity theft may be the alert consumer who guards their personal infomation and keeps a close watch on their accounts to see if anything is amiss.
It takes a measure of attentiveness to spot when someone is illegally using your name. You can monitor your bank statements and credit accounts, but sometimes theft isn’t discovered until after the damage has been done. Bad credit racked up by someone else could delay a mortgage or car loan. Invoices for mysterious expenses arrive in the mail. Bill collectors start calling on debts you didn’t incur. There are steps you can take to protect yourself.
Fighting back with added security
Ask about security information in your workplace, doctor’s office or other places that collect your ID. Find out who has access and verify that your information is handled in a secure manner. Ask about disposal procedures and how your information be kept confidential.
Mail is a prime target for identity theft, with bank statements, bills, checks and even junk mail containing person information. Make sure you empty your mailbox every day, and destroy mail that has your name on it.
A paper shredder used to be something for the office. Now it’s a home necessity to dispose of receipts, bank records, credit card offers and anything with your personal information.
Fighting advances in theft technology
As technology advances, so do the methods of identity thieves. Consumer advocate Clark Howard says the only sure-fire way to protect yourself is to freeze your credit. Only a personal ID number can thaw your report to allow the processing of legitimate applications for credit and services. Credit freezing can be done for as little as $3.
Other tips for keeping your personal information safe:
- Sign your credit card immediately after receiving it.
- Do not write down passwords or your Social Security number for storing.
- Do not give out your Social Security number, credit card numbers or bank account details over the phone.
- Do not disclose personal data online unless you’re on a secure website, which is a site deemed safe for the user and the computer.
- Store little-used identification and cards in a secure location.
Guarding against medical identifty theft
Identity thieves could be using your life and health insurance information to get medical treatment or prescription drugs. You could wind up getting billed for medical services you have not received.
Medical identity theft can also wreak havoc on your personal records. With this type of theft your records could indicate a different blood type, an inaccurate history of drug or alcohol abuse, test results that aren’t yours, or a diagnosis of an illness, allergy or condition you don’t have. Any of these could lead to improper treatment, which in turn, could lead to injury, illness or worse.
Report the crime in time
People whose identities have been stolen can spend months or years and thousands of dollars cleaning up the mess the thieves have made of a good name and credit record. The victims may lose job opportunities, be refused loans for education, housing, or cars, and get arrested for crimes they didn't commit.
Steps to take
If you suspect someone has taken your identity, the Federal Trade Commission recommends you take these immediate steps.
- Place a fraud alert on your credit reports by contacting one of the three national credit reporting agencies.
- Request and review your credit reports annually. You are entitled to one free report per year from each of the credit agencies.
- Close the accounts that you know, or believe, have been tampered with or opened fraudulently.
- File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.
- File a report with your local police, or the police in the community where the identity theft took place.
Find out more on how to spot a scam including an attempt at identity theft by taking this quiz from the Federal Deposit Insurance Commission.
Identity theft is an increasing problem. There is more awareness than ever about identity theft, and initiatives like the President’s Identity Theft Task Force are put forth to combat the problem. Still, there are more people applying advanced technology that creates new methods to steal personal information. By staying vigilant through common sense methods and using ID protections, the risk of identity theft can be reduced.