Take Steps to Head Off Identity Theft
Beware: People are trying to steal your good name.
According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), as many as 9 million people in the US have their identities stolen each year. Crooks ranging from computer experts to purse snatchers steal personal information such as names and Social Security and credit card numbers, then run up bills in victims' names.
Many thieves cover their tracks with altered billing addresses or other ploys. And many victims don't know they've been hit until they get strange bills and account statements -- or hear from bill collectors.
The average loss is $6,383, the Better Business Bureau says. But experts cite cases with losses of $100,000 or more.
Under federal law, victims whose credit cards or numbers have been stolen are liable for just $50 per illegally used card. But you must act within 60 days of the mailing of the bill that includes the disputed charge -- even if the thief changed the address on the account so you didn't get that bill. That's why it's vital to keep track of your bills and follow up fast if they don't arrive.
How is it done?
Sadly, thieves can include friends or relatives who go through your wallet and records. Identity thieves use a variety of ways to steal your personal information, according to the FTC. Here are some of them:
Looking through your trash. They search for bills or other documents with your personal information on them.
Skimming. This means secretly recording your credit card numbers when processing your card.
Phishing. With this technique, the thief sends you an email or pop-up message that pretends to be from a bank or other financial company. The email or ad asks you for personal financial information.
Changing your address. They file a change of address form for your billing statements, so your statements no longer come to you.
Stealing. The thieves gain information by stealing wallets and purses, or credit card statements, new checks or tax information.
Another tactic is called "pretexting." With this method, the thief calls you, claiming to be someone he or she is not. The caller asks for such information as your name, address, birthday and Social Security number.
However the thief obtains your personal information, he or she can then use it fraudulently to open a new credit card, phone or utility account in your name or use your existing account but have the bills sent to another address, so you won't discover the fraud immediately. They may create counterfeit checks with your name or account number or take out a loan in your name. They may use your identity to obtain official IDs in your name but with a different photo. If arrested, a thief may give your name and address, putting you at risk for arrest if he or she later doesn't show up in court.
Trying to clear up bills and records can be a long, costly, stressful mess for victims.
"There is no invulnerable shield," says Jay Foley, executive director of the nonprofit Identity Theft Resource Center in San Diego. "You can do everything right and still become a victim."
But you're not defenseless, experts say. You can protect your identity, detect problems and correct them.
First, you must realize that just about all information on you -- including "secret" passwords -- is in a computer or accessible to people who can find it, buy it or steal it.
The young are among the most vulnerable to identity theft. Parents get Social Security numbers for newborns to claim them as income tax dependents. Thieves who snag those numbers can run scams that may not be seen for years. They show up only when the youths are old enough to seek credit cards, college loans and jobs -- and face rejections.
Many people don't learn that their identity has been stolen until after some damage has been done, the FTC says. That may mean when a collection agency contacts you about overdue bills you never racked up. Or, when you apply for a loan or mortgage and find out that your credit history is a problem.
Keep careful watch
The best way to keep track of your identity is to monitor your credit accounts and bank statements each month, and check your credit report at least once a year, the FTC says.
Here are other ideas:
Shred mail and documents before you throw them out, including credit card applications.
Don't answer any unsolicited e-mails. If you are sent an e-mail that seems to be from your bank or other institution and the e-mail requests personal information, don't respond. Instead, call the institution directly to ask about it.
Don't keep personal information on your computer and don't have the computer store passwords. Don't use facts like your name, birth date, mother's maiden name or Social Security number as passwords.
Don't stay connected to the Internet 24/7. Connect only when you need to use it; otherwise, disconnect the cable from your modem to your computer.
If someone calls you representing your bank or another agency, don't give the person any information. Call the bank or business back using the number in the phone book or on your statements. Keep in mind that Caller ID programs can be manipulated to show false IDs.
Don't use ATMs if you can avoid them. Do your banking business inside the bank.
Check your Social Security statement annually to make sure no money has been added that wasn't put there by you. Additional money could indicate that your number has been stolen.
Petition your legislators to pass laws to allow a credit "freeze." If your credit is frozen, others cannot use it illegally. About 14 states currently allow a credit "freeze."
If you suspect or find ID theft
Place a fraud alert on your credit reports by calling one of the three national consumer reporting companies: Equifax, 800-525-6285; Experian, 888-397-3742; or TransUnion, 800-680-7289.
Placing a fraud alert lets you get free copies of your credit report. Look for odd transactions, credit queries and debts.
Close any compromised accounts or accounts opened by fraud.
File a police report.
File a report with the FTC. You can do this via the Web, http://www.ftc.gov/idtheft; phone, 877-438-4338; or mail, Identity Theft Clearinghouse, Federal Trade Commission, Washington, DC 20580.
If you think you're the victim of Medicare or Medicaid fraud, call the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 800-447-8477.
Online Medical Reviewers:
Foster, Sara M. RN, MPH
Godsey, Cynthia M.S., M.S.N., APRN
Lambert, J.G. M.D.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care.
Always follow your healthcare provider's instructions.