Identity Theft


Identity theft occurs when a thief obtains - and illegally uses - your identifying information, such as your Social Security Number (SSN) or your credit card or checking account numbers, to open new credit accounts and apply for loans in your name.

Traditionally ID thieves have struck by redirecting mail, stealing sales receipts, and shoulder surfing--peeking over people's shoulders while they're at the ATM (Automated Teller Machine).  Technology expands their opportunities.

Spoofing, spamming, and phishing

Identity thieves aren't only picking sales recepts and credit card offers out of trash cans to steal your information.  They're using highly technical methods.  They spoof, spam, and phish.

Spoofers create a replica of an existing Web page to fool a user into submitting personal, financial, or password data.

Make sure the Web sites you visit show a padlock near the bottom of your browser window -- the padlock signifies the sue of SSL (secure sockets layer) technology.  By convention, URLs (uniform resource locators) that require a safe connection start with https: or s-http:.

Spammers send unsolicited e-mail indiscriminately to multiple mailing lists, individuals, ornewsgroups.  These e-mails include advertisements, viruses, and hoaxes.  Report spam by sending an e-mail to the FTC at uce@ftc.gov.

Phishers create and use e-mails and Web sites--designed to look like e-mails and Web sites of well-known legitimate businesses, financial institutions, and government agencies-- to deceive users into disclosing financial institution and account information or other personal data such as usernames and passwords.

Preventing identity theft

  • Before revealing personal financial information, find out whom you're dealing with, how the information will be used, and if it will be shared with others.
  • Only give your SSN when it's absolutely necessary.  Ask if you can use another identifier. such as a driver's license, instead.  And don't carry your Social Security in your wallet unless you need it that day.
  • Keep items with personal information in a safe place and either shred them or tear them up when you don't need them anymore.  Dispose of checking/share draft copies and statements, recepts with a credit card imprint, insurance forms, expired credit cards, savings and investment account statements, and credit card offers the same way.
  • Order a copy of your credit report from each credit reporting agency every year.  The Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACT Act) of 2003, effective by the end of 2004, requires credit bureaus to provide a free report annually to consumers who request a copy.

Here is a list of the three major credit bureaus:

Request a copy of credit report Fraud units
Experian www.experian.com 888-397-3742 888-397-3742
Equifax www.equifax.com 800-685-1111 800-525-6285
TransUnion www.transunion.com 800-916-8800 800-680-7289
  • Verify that your credit report is accurate and that it includes only activities you've authorized.
  • Look over your credit card and credit union statements each month for unauthorized charges or suspicious activity.
  • Photocopy financial cards and insurance cards you carry in your wallet (front and back) and keep copies in a safe place; if your wallet is lost or stolen, you can promptly and accurately report the loss.
  • Consider the information you're supplying on entries to win a car, shopping spree, and so on.  To win, information such as your age or income range usually is not necessary.
  • Contact the U.S. Postal Service if you don't receive mail for a few days.  You want to confirm your mail - with, say all those credit card offers - hasn't been diverted by a thief filling out a change of address form in your name.

Recovering from identity theft

The FACT Act helps ensure that all citizens are treated fairly when they apply for credit.  It provides new national ID theft protections as well.

Before, identity theft victims had to call all their credit card issuers and the three major credit bureaus to alert them to crime. Now, credit bureaus will share identity theft complaints, and consumers only will need to make one call to receive advice, set off a nationwide fraud alert, and protect their credit standing.

The Act also alliows active duty military personnel to place special alerts on their files when they are deployed overseas.

To help recover from identity theft:

  • Contact all creditors, utilities, and financial institutions about fraudulent accounts and folliow up each conversation with a letter.  Close suspicious accounts and open new ones using new passwords and PINs (personal identification numbers).  Don't use recognizable identifiers such as the last four digits of your SSN, you birth date, house number, and so on for passwords and PINs.
  • File a report with your local police or the police where the theft took place.  Get a copy of the repiort in case a creditor needs proof of the crime.
  • File a complaint with the FTC at the Identity Theft Hotline, toll-free at 877-IDTHEFT (438-4338).
  • Ask your creditors if they'll accept the FTC's ID Theft Affidavit.  You can get one by calling the FTC at 877-IDTHEFT or at www.consumer.gov/idtheft.  The affidavit allows consumers to report identity theft information to several companies simultaneously.
  • If it appears that someone is using your SSN, contact the Social Security Administration to verify the accuracy of your reported earnings and your name.  Call 800-772-1213 to check your Social Security statement.

Social Security Number Advice

You are required to provide your SSN for:

  • Income tax records
  • Medical records
  • Credit bureau reports
  • College records
  • Loan applications
  • Vehicle registrations

You can and may want to refuse to provide your SSN in these situations:

  • As driver's license number (in most states)
  • On personal checks
  • Over the phone
  • On club memberships
  • On address labels
  • As identification for store purchases/refunds
  • As general identification

Useful Resources: