Recent studies estimate that there are 10 million victims of identity theft annually and that number is rising. Stealing someone's identity today is relatively easy, and the payoffs can be huge for an offender. The average amount netted from a bank robbery today is about $3,500, while the average amount netted from identity theft is $17,000. Thanks to the Internet, offenders don't even have to leave their own homes to commit identity theft, which makes it less risky than robbing a bank and very profitable because they can victimize many people or even just one person repeatedly. Becoming a victim of identity theft can be frustrating, devastating, and can sometimes take years to recover from. Recovering or reestablishing your credit or good name can be a lengthy process, but there are resources to assist you.
What Identity Theft Is
Identity theft involves acquiring key pieces of someone's identifying information, such as name, address, date of birth, social security number, and/or mother's maiden name in order to commit, aid, or abet any crime. This information enables a thief to commit various types of fraud, including taking over the financial accounts of victims, opening new accounts, making purchases, applying for and getting loans or other benefits, renting apartments, establishing utilities, or committing crimes under another's identity.
Here are some of the basic forms of identity theft:
- Theft of Financial Information - Someone steals existing account information, such as a credit card or bank account, or opens a new account under a false name.
- Benefit Fraud - Obtaining money or benefits, such as Social Security, medical insurance, or welfare, using someone else's identity.
- Criminal Identity Theft - Committing a crime using someone else's identity. Many victims are unaware of this until being pulled over for a traffic violation and discovering there is a warrant for their arrest.
- Identity Cloning - Assuming someone else's identity. This may include using professional licenses or working under someone else's name. Many victims only discover this around tax time when the IRS reports that they have much more income than the individual earned.
- Business Identity Theft - To defraud or hurt a business - usually financially
How Thieves Steal an Identity
There are many ways that thieves can steal your information:
- Dumpster Diving - Thieves go through your trash or the trash behind businesses to obtain information.
- Skimming - Thieves copy your credit card information by hand or with a machine. This can happen any time that your credit card is out of your site, such as when paying for a bill at a restaurant. In this case, you can still have your credit card and thieves can still use it.
- Phishing - Emails or pop-up ads that request you to provide personal and/or financial information. These often appear to be legitimate emails from a bank, etc.
- Unlocked Mailboxes (Also called "red-flagging") - Thieves check mailboxes for outgoing or incoming mail that includes checks, credit card offers, etc. Thieves can chemically erase certain inks and fill in the "Pay to the Order of" and amount sections on a check, while leaving a valid signature. Thieves also take credit card offers and open the accounts themselves.
- Theft of Wallet, Checkbook, PDA, or Computer
- Taking Info from Unsecured Internet Websites
- Shoulder Surfing/Eavesdropping
- Data Collection Devices - High-tech theft - keynote loggers, skimmers, camera phones, computer viruses
- Theft by Family/Friends/Acquaintances
- Business Record Theft - Employees stealing or selling customer information, etc.
- Fraudulent Calls or Mail - Requesting funds over the phone or in the mail for fraudulent purposes (i.e. false charities, etc.)
- Change of Address - Mail is misdirected because of a change or lack of change of an address or thieves change your address.
Types of Information that is Stolen
- Phone number (including cell phones)
- Social Security number
- Driver's license
- Credit card number, expiration date, and 3-digit security number on the back of the card
- Banking account information - debit cards, deposit slips, checks, ATM cards
- Employee ID
- Digital signature
- Electronic ID numbers - Personal Identification Numbers (PINs), passwords, etc.
- Mother's maiden name
- Other numbers used to identify persons (school ID numbers, etc.)
- Passport or alien cards
- Health insurance numbers
Prevention & Detection
While it is impossible to completely eliminate your risk, there are many ways to reduce the risk of becoming a victim of identity theft or to minimize the impact if your information is compromised.
- Do not carry your social security card with you. It should be locked in a secure place and used only when absolutely necessary, such as when you obtain a new job or apply for benefits. If someone requests your SSN, ask why it is needed and how it will be used and protected.
- Do not send identifying information via email at all or to any site you do not know and trust.
- Do not give out personal information on the phone, through the mail, or over the internet unless you know with whom you are dealing.
- Do not respond to unsolicited mail, spam, or pop-ups. If you receive an email that appears to be from your bank, contact your bank directly - do not respond to or click on a link in an email.
- Do shred information that is no longer needed with a cross-shredder. (Using a shredder that gives straight strips is too easy for thieves to reassemble to get your information.)
- Do keep all personal information secure
- Do not leave checks in an unlocked mailbox. Drop mail off directly at the post office. If possible, obtain a locked mailbox or P.O. Box so incoming mail cannot be stolen.
- Do not use obvious passwords like date of birth, mother's maiden name, or the last four digits of your social security number.
- Do use a combination of numbers, upper and lower case letters, and special characters to create passwords.
- Do routinely monitor your accounts and credit reports for unauthorized activity.
- Do avoid telemarketing, contest/sweepstakes entries, chances to win, etc. Also, if you did not enter a sweepstakes contest, you did not win! Do not respond to emails telling you that you have won a contest.
- Do use computer safeguards, such as pop-up blockers, anti-spyware, anti-virus programs, etc.
- Do monitor your accounts online when possible. You can catch unauthorized use much more quickly.
- Do use caution when making Internet or eBay purchases.
- Do carry only cards that are essential.
- Do not use a ballpoint pen to sign checks; the ink can be erased. Instead, use a gel pen.
- Do ensure that checks have security features.
- Do opt-out of credit card offers and put your phone numbers on the Do Not Call list
- Do stop your mail or put a hold on your mail if you will be out of the area.
- Do not put the flag up if you have outgoing mail.
- Do obtain your free credit report annually.
- Do look for security features online
- Do follow established practices for online auctions.
- Do designate one credit card for online purchases. This should not be a debit card that is directly connected to your bank account.
If you become a victim of identity theft, swift and well-documented action is essential to reduce the impact. The sooner that identity theft is discovered and action is taken, the less financial and time loss to the victim.
Maintaining Detailed, Organized & Thorough Records Is Vital
- Close any accounts that were accessed or compromised.
- Keep a detailed log of all contacts with agencies including date and time of calls, copies of all written correspondence (both sent and received), etc. Report the fraud to the major credit bureaus.
- Create a fraud alert on your credit reports.
- Request your free copies of your credit report. Your credit report is free if you are a victim of fraud.
- Complete the FTC ID Theft Complaint form and report to the FTC.
- Report to law enforcement and get copies of the police report.
- Request information on fraudulent accounts. Share this information with law enforcement.
- Contact additional fraud departments for creditors on affected accounts.
- Review credit reports. Contact credit bureaus if there is any inaccurate information.
- Document with follow-up letters. Send letters by certified mail with a return receipt.
- Notify the U.S. Postal Inspector if your mail has been stolen or tampered with.