Identity theft occurs when someone uses your personal information to obtain credit cards and loans or conduct other financial transactions in your name. These fraudulent transactions can affect your credit rating and finances if they are not identified and handled immediately.
The FDIC provides this "to do" list for keeping your identity to yourself.
1. Protect your Social Security number (SSN), credit card and debit card numbers, PINs (personal identification numbers), passwords and other personal information. Never provide this information in response to an unsolicited phone call, fax, letter or e-mail — no matter how friendly or official the circumstances may appear.
In case your wallet gets lost or stolen, only carry the identification, checks, credit cards or debit cards you really need. The rest, including your Social Security card, are best kept in a safe place. Also, be extra careful if you have housemates or if you let workers into your house because they sometimes are in the best position to find personal information and use it without your knowledge.
Likewise, don't pre-print your Social Security number, phone number or driver's license number on your checks. "It's too easy for someone who sees your check to copy this personal information and even sell it to an ID thief," said Kathryn Weatherby, an Examination Specialist for the FDIC. Remember that you have the right to refuse requests for your SSN from merchants and service providers — they have other ways to identify you. And if your state puts Social Security numbers on driver's licenses, find out if you can use another number.
2. Protect your incoming and outgoing mail. Chances are that your mail carrier will deliver a credit card or bank statement, an envelope containing a check, or other items that can be very valuable to a thief. Or perhaps you'll put in the mail a check or papers containing account numbers or other personal financial information.
For incoming mail: Try to use a locked mailbox or other secure location, such as a P.O. box. If your mailbox isn't locked or in a secure location, try to promptly remove mail that's been delivered or move the mailbox to a safer place. And when ordering new checks, "ask about getting the boxes delivered to your bank branch instead of having them mailed to your home and running the risk of finding them out on your front stoop," said Weatherby.
For outgoing mail containing a check or personal information: Deposit it in a U.S. Postal Service blue collection box, hand it to a mail carrier or take it to the post office instead of leaving it in your doorway or home mailbox. "A mailbox that holds your outgoing bills is a prime target for thieves who cruise neighborhoods looking for account information," said Jeff Kopchik, an FDIC Senior Policy Analyst. "Even worse is putting up the flag on a mailbox to indicate there is outgoing mail sitting there, because that's also an invitation for a thief."
3. Keep your financial trash "clean." Thieves known as "dumpster divers" pick through garbage looking for pieces of paper containing Social Security numbers, bank account information and other details they can use to commit fraud. Examples of valuable trash include insurance information containing your SSN, blank checks mailed by financial institutions with offers to "write yourself a loan," canceled checks and bank statements.
Your best protection against dumpster divers? Before tossing out these items, destroy them, preferably using a "crosscut" shredder that turns paper into confetti that cannot be easily reconstructed. Also remember our suggestions for limiting the use of your Social Security number, which would lessen the likelihood it will be found in your personal papers at home.
4. Keep a close watch on your bank account statements and credit card bills. Monitor these statements each month and contact your financial institution immediately if there's a discrepancy in your records or if you notice something suspicious, such as a missing payment or an unauthorized withdrawal. While federal and state laws may limit your losses if you're a victim of fraud or theft, your protections may be stronger if you report the problem quickly and in writing. You also avoid the hassle and inconvenience of straightening things out.
Contact your institution if a bank statement or credit card bill doesn't arrive on time. This mail, if missing, could be a sign someone has stolen your mail and/or account information and perhaps has changed your mailing address to run up big bills in your name from another location.
5. Avoid ID theft on the Internet. "Hackers" and scam artists are finding ways to steal private information transmitted over the Internet or stored on computer systems. You can do a lot to protect yourself while shopping, banking, e-mailing or surfing on the Web. For example, never provide bank account or other personal information in response to an unsolicited e-mail or when visiting a website that doesn't explain how your personal information would be protected.
Phishing scams that arrive by e-mail typically ask you to "update" your account information. But don't fall for this ruse. Legitimate organizations wouldn't ask you for these details — they already have the necessary information or they can obtain it in other ways. Don't respond to these e-mails and don't open any attachments unless you independently confirm the validity of the request by contacting the legitimate organization the way you usually would, not by using the e-mail address, Web site or phone number provided in the e-mail. If you believe the e-mail is fraudulent, consider bringing it to the attention of the Federal Trade Commission. And if you do open and respond to a phony e-mail, contact your financial institution immediately.
Take precautions with your personal computer. Among them: Install a free or low-cost "firewall" to stop intruders from gaining remote access to your PC. Download and frequently update security "patches" offered by your operating system and software vendors to correct weaknesses that a hacker might exploit. Use passwords that will be hard for hackers to guess. For example, use a mix of numbers, symbols and letters instead of your date of birth or last name. Also, shut down your PC when you are not using it. "Don't believe that you are safe if you merely log off the Internet," said Eloy Villafranca, an FDIC Community Affairs Officer. "Hackers can still get into your computer as long as there is power going to the PC."
To get more information about computer security and safeguarding personal information, visit the Federal Trade Commission's website. For the latest scam alerts check the FDIC Consumer Alerts web page.