Identity theft - someone stealing your personal information to use for illegal purposes - is a crime that is growing exponentially.
A 2007 Federal Trade Commission report estimated that 8.3 million Americans had been victims of identity theft in 2005.
Stealing a person's identity is easier now than at any time in the past, thanks to computers and public access to personal data. Criminals know that businesses are reluctant to prosecute individual cases and often consider losses a "cost of doing business."
Many state laws consider the victim
to be the business that was defrauded - not the person whose identity was stolen.
While these laws are gradually being changed, the very nature of the crime
makes the perpetrator difficult to identify and prosecute.
For these reasons, the victim of identity fraud must personally take steps to limit damage to his or her financial standing, credit history and peace of mind. There is no shortcut to fixing problems caused by identity theft, and the process could take months. The average victim spends at least 30 hours to resolve the situation.
Tips for Avoiding Identity Theft
Guard your financial information.
Only disclose your credit card or bank account number when you"re paying for something with it.
Keep your Social Security number confidential.
Don't give it to anyone unless you're sure who it is and why they need it. Ask your college administrator, health insurer, the Department of Motor Vehicle Safety and others who may use this as your ID number to give you a substitute number.
Beware of imposters.
Be especially suspicious if you get a call or e-mail from someone claiming to be from a company you do business with, asking for information they should already have on file. (In its most common form, this ruse is known as "phishing.") Contact the company directly to confirm the validity of the message.
Keep your mail safe.
Collect it promptly from your mailbox and ask the Post Office to hold it while you"re away. Send bill payments from the Post Office or a public mailbox.
Lock it up.
Keep your personal information locked up at home, at work, at school and elsewhere so that no one else will have easy access to it. Don't leave PIN numbers or passwords in your wallet or on your desk; memorize them.
Stay safe online.
Install a firewall on your laptop or computer. Don't send sensitive information such as credit card numbers, Social Security numbers or bank account information by e-mail, since it's not secure. When you're asked to provide financial or other sensitive information on web sites, the letters at the beginning of the address bar should change from "http" to "https" or "shttp," indicating that your information is being encrypted, or scrambled, to transmit it safely.
Check your credit reports regularly.
If you find accounts that don't belong to you or other incorrect information, contact the credit reporting agencies to dispute those charges. Federal law entitles you to one free copy of your credit reports each year from each of the three credit reporting agencies. You can request them through a single central source at www.annualcreditreport.com or by calling 877-322-8228. In addition, all Georgia consumers are eligible to receive two additional copies of each credit report per year at no charge. To receive these additional copies, you must contact the credit reporting agencies directly.
P.O. Box 740241
Atlanta, Georgia 30374
To order a credit report: 800-685-1111
Fraud Unit: 800-525-6285
Web site: www.equifax.com
EXPERIAN (formerly TRW)
P.O. Box 2002
Allen, Texas 75013
To order a credit report: 866-200-6020
Fraud Unit: 888-397-3742
All services: 888-397-3742
Web site: www.experian.com
TRANS UNION CORPORATION
P.O. Box 2000
Chester, Pennsylvania 19022
To order a credit report: 800-888-4213
Fraud Unit: 800-680-7289
Web site: www.transunion.com
What To Do If You Have Become The Victim of Identity Theft
1. Contact the three major credit bureaus to report the fraud and request your credit reports:
Ask that a fraud alert be put on your file.This signals creditors and lenders to contact you for verification when someone tries to open up a new credit account in your name. There are two types of fraud alerts. An "initial fraud alert" lasts for 90 days, while an "extended fraud alert" lasts for seven years and requires that you submit an "identity theft report". Fraud alerts are free.
An even stronger protection against a fraudulent account being opened in your name is placing a security
freeze (or "credit freeze") on your credit reports. With a freeze in place, the information in your credit report will not be released to anyone. Since most creditors will not open a new account if they cannot first review your credit history, this measure makes it almost impossible for an identity thief to open an account in your name.
A credit freeze remains in effect until you contact the credit bureau and request that it be removed. Note: if you are seeking a loan, new credit card, utility or insurance account, you may need to temporarily lift the freeze in order to get credit approval. Credit freezes are free to Georgia consumers who have been victims of identity theft.
Get a copy of your credit report from each of the credit reporting agencies. Review them carefully for any unauthorized charges or accounts. Ask the credit reporting agencies to remove any information that appears as a result of the identity theft. Also ask each credit reporting agency to send you a copy of your corrected credit report so that you can verify that the erroneous information has been removed and that each report contains a fraud alert.
2. Contact your banks and creditors.
Close any accounts that you know or suspect were compromised and ask for replacement cards with new account numbers and PINs. Find out if there have been any unauthorized charges or unusual requests such as change-of-address or requests for additional or replacement credit cards. Instruct the card issuer not to honor any requests regarding your card without your written authorization. Send a follow-up letter confirming the conversation and the action the credit card issuer has agreed to take, and keep a copy of the letter. Your liability for unauthorized credit card charges cannot exceed $50 per federal law. Many creditors will even waive the $50 if the victim provides documentation indicating identity theft (such as a police report).
If personal checks have been lost or stolen, notify your bank immediately and have "stop payments" placed on the missing checks. You can also contact the major check verification companies to request that they notify retailers using their database not to accept the stolen checks:
International Check Services
3. Report the crime to your local police.
In addition, if the crime took place in a different locale, you should report it to law enforcement officials there. Keep a copy of the report for your files. Creditors, banks, credit reporting agencies and insurance companies may require a police report to verify the crime of identity theft.
4. If your driver's license or other ID has been stolen, contact the issuing agency and find out how to cancel the document and get a replacement.
Georgia Department of Driver Services (for stolen Georgia driver's licenses)
U.S. Social Security Administration
Report fraud: 800-269-0271
www.ssa.gov and Identity Theft and Your Social Security Number
5. Utilities & Services
Notify your gas, electric, water, cable and trash utilities that you are the victim of identity theft, and alert them to the possibility that the thief may try to establish new accounts using your identification information. Give similar notice to the providers of your local, long-distance and cellular telephone service. Ask the utility and telephone services to use a new unique identifier for your accounts. Do not use your mother's maiden name, since this information is available in public records.
6. File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission
The FTC oversees the operation of credit bureaus, maintains an identity theft database, and provides assistance for identity theft victims. You can find a great deal of helpful information on its web site, including the text of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (under Consumer Information/ Laws/ Credit) and a complaint form that can be transmitted to the FTC via the Internet.
Identity Theft Clearinghouse Hotline: 877-IDTHEFT
Consumer Response Center: 202-FTC-HELP or 202-382-4357
Web sites: www.ftc.gov and www.consumer.gov/idtheft