Identity Theft: What’s It All About?

The 1990s spawned a new variety of criminals: identity thieves. Identity theft is a serious crime and occurs when a thief obtains some piece of your sensitive information and uses it without your knowledge to commit fraud or theft. Identity thieves target your everyday transactions that usually reveal bits of your personal data, such as your bank and credit card account information; your income; your Social Security Number; or even information as basic as your name, address, and telephone numbers.  As a victim, you can lose job opportunities; be refused loans for education, housing or cars; or even been arrested for crimes you didn’t commit. People whose identities have been stolen can spend months or even years cleaning up the mess the thieves have made of their good name and credit record, and the process can be quite expensive

How Identity Theft Occurs

Skilled identity thieves use a variety of methods to gain access to your personal information. For example, identity thieves:

  • Get information from businesses or other institutions by:
    • Stealing records from their employer
    • Bribing an employee who has access to these records
    • Hacking into the organizations’ computers
  • Steal mail before it can be delivered to you
  • Go “dumpster diving,” to find bank account or credit card statements or other mailings that reveal your personal information
  • Pose as a legitimate business person or governmental official to trick people into revealing personal financial information
  • Steal credit and debit card numbers

Once a thief has this information, they may clean out your bank account, max out your credit card or open new credit card accounts in your name, file for bankruptcy under your name, or give your name to police during an arrest and not show up for their court date, creating a warrant for your arrest without you even knowing it.

How Can You Tell if You’re a Victim?

You should always closely monitor the balances of your financial/credit card accounts and look for charges and purchases that you didn’t make. If you do not receive bills or other expected mail, this can signal an address change has been requested. If you receive credit cards that you did not apply for or you are denied credit for no apparent reason, these can also signal that someone has stolen your identity. Finally, receiving calls from debt collectors or companies about merchandise or services you didn’t buy is a big warning sign that your identity and personal information may have been compromised.

Steps You Can Take

You can order a credit report from any of the three major credit bureaus or subscribe to a credit reporting service that notifies you as soon as a change to your credit has occurred. A general rule of thumb is to check your credit report at least once per year (even if you don’t suspect any fraud has occurred). If your personal information has been lost or stolen, or you have any other reason to suspect that you’ve been the victim of identity theft, you should check your credit reports more frequently.

Managing your Personal Information

When it comes to personal information, you should apply caution and prudence.

  • Place passwords on your credit card, bank and phone accounts whenever possible. Avoid using easily obtainable information like your birth date, the last four digits of your SSN, your phone number, or a series of consecutive numbers (like 1234).
  • Secure personal information in your home.
  • Ask about information security procedures in your workplace. Find out who has access to your personal information and verify that your records are kept in a secure location. Ask about the disposal procedures for those records are well.
  • Guard your mail and trash from theft. Deposit outgoing mail in post office collection boxes or at your local post office. Remove mail from your mailbox promptly.
  • Shred all receipts, copies of credit offers or applications, insurance forms, physician statements, checks and bank statements, expired credit cards, and any other material that contains personal information.
  • Don’t give out personal information over the phone, through the mail, or over the Internet unless you’ve initiated the contact or are sure you know who you are dealing with. Identity thieves can be skilled liars, and may pose as representatives of banks, Internet service providers, or even governmental agencies to get you to reveal identifying personal information. Before you divulge any personal information, confirm that you are dealing with an official representative of a legitimate organization. Call customer service using the number on your account statements or on the back of your credit cards to verify that the information is actually needed.
  • Keep your Social Security Card in a secure place and give your Social Security Number out only when absolutely necessary.
  • If any organization uses your Social Security Number for identification purposes, call or write and ask that a different number be used.
  • Limit the identification information and the number of credit and debit cards that you carry to what you actually need.
  • Password-protect all credit card accounts that allow it.
  • Arrange to pick up new checks at your bank instead of having them delivered.
  • Take all credit card and ATM receipts with you after all transactions.
  • Write a letter to any financial institution you do business with and ask that they not share your information with third parties.
  • Keep your purse or wallet in a safe, locked place while at work.
  • Your computer can be a goldmine of personal information to identity thieves. Some of the things you can do to protect your information while using a computer are:
    • Update your virus protection regularly.
    • Do not download files from strangers or click on links from people you do not know.
    • Use firewall protection software.
    • Try not to store financial information on your laptop unless absolutely necessary. If you do, use a strong password that is a combination of letters, numbers and symbols.
    • Avoid using an automatic log-in feature that saves your user name and password, and always log off when you are finished.
    • Delete any personal information stored on your computer before you dispose of or replace your current computer.
    • Always read website privacy policies.

Colorado offers an Identity Theft “Repair Kit.” The kit contains a 10-step checklist for victims of identity theft and includes credit bureau phone numbers and online contacts, information on how to file a report with the FTC, and other relevant information. More helpful information on preventing identity theft is included in the electronic copy of the ID Theft Repair Kit.

If your identity has been stolen:

  • Place a fraud alert on your credit reports and review your credit reports
  • Close any accounts that have been tampered with or opened fraudulently
  • File a report with your local police or the police in the community where the identity theft took place
  • File a complaint online with the Federal Trade Commission (or call them at 1-877-434-4388), or write to Identity Theft Clearinghouse, Federal Trade Commission, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20580
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