Identity theft is one of the fastest growing crimes in the United States, affecting millions of Americans each year. It occurs when someone wrongfully obtains and uses another person’s identifying information to commit fraud or unlawful criminal activities. An identity thief may obtain credit, bank accounts, loans, leases, government benefits and services, or employment as well as a passport and firearm in your name. An identity thief may also assume your identity to access your existing accounts, including securities investments, brokerage accounts and retirement accounts, and commit crimes ranging from a traffic violation to a felony.
In identity theft cases, the victim most often has to prove his or her innocence. Victims of identity theft have spent countless hours and thousands of dollars repairing the substantial damage identity thieves have inflicted on their assets, credit record and reputation.
There is no guarantee that you will never be a victim of identity theft, but you can be proactive and minimize your risk by safeguarding your personal data. Remember, you don’t have to lose your wallet or have it stolen to be a victim of identity theft.
Identity theft prevention tips:
1. Monitor your credit report. Your credit report is a valuable tool in discovering identity theft, since it will provide indications of whether someone has wrongfully opened or used any accounts in your name. Check the accounts listed and their balances; review who has received a copy of your credit history; check recent inquiries for addresses where you have never lived and for variances in your Social Security number.
2. Protect your Social Security number vigilantly, since it is the primary source of verifying your identity. Do not carry your Social Security card in your wallet or purse and do not have the number printed on your checks or driver license. Check your Social Security Earnings and Benefits Statement annually to ensure your Social Security number is not being used by someone else for employment.
3. Never provide your personal information via the phone, mail, or Internet unless you initiated contact or trust the person you are dealing with. “Pretexting” (getting personal information under false pretenses) is a method of identity theft that is on the rise. Be cautious of unexpected e-mails and text messages that appear to be from legitimate companies requesting that you update or validate personal and financial information to keep your account active.
4. Beware of dumpster divers who rummage through trash for personal data. Buy a cross-cut type shredder and shred all sensitive documents, including unwanted pre-approved credit card offers, credit card receipts, bank statements, canceled checks, bills and insurance documents before throwing them away.
5. Obtain a P.O. Box. Mail theft is common. Do not place mail, especially checks, in an unsecured mailbox. Drop outgoing mail off at a US mailbox or post office.
6. Beware of malware, which can record your keystrokes, steal your passwords, redirect your Web browser to phishing pages and report your personal information to distant servers. All Internet users should purchase security software.