By April Sorrow
University of Georgia
An ever growing problemEach year, more than 500,000 Americans are victims of identity theft. According to the Federal Trade Commission, people whose identities have been stolen can spend months or years and thousands of dollars cleaning up the mess it causes. Victims of identity theft can lose job opportunities, be refused loans or housing, and even get arrested for crimes they didn’t commit. Thieves can get the information they need from stealing business records, mailed statements, through a phishing e-mail scam or by digging through trash. With a few account numbers, a Social Security number, address and phone number, a thief is equipped to assume someone’s identity.
Follow this adviceThe risk of identity theft can never be completely eliminated, he said. But to improve the chances of avoiding it: • Limit sharing your SSN. Don’t print it on checks or use it on ID cards. Check your Social Security Earnings and Benefits statement once a year to check for fraud. • Monitor your credit report. It contains your SSN, present and past employers and a listing of all account numbers, including closed accounts. Watch for new accounts or activity on existing accounts you didn't approve. • Shred old bank statements and junk mail credit card offers before throwing them away. • Remove your name from the marketing lists of the three consumer credit reporting agencies. Call 1-888-5-OPTOUT to remove your name from the list for two years. This will reduce the number of preapproved credit offers you receive. Add your name to the list of name-deletions of the Direct Marketing Association’s Mail Preference Service and Telephone Preference Service used by banks and other marketers. Visit www.junkstopper.com to learn the addresses of where to send name removal requests. • Don’t carry extra credit cards or other important identity documents except when needed. Cancel unused credit card accounts. • Make copies of the contents of your wallet. Copy both sides of your driver’s license and credit cards. • Never give your credit card number or personal information over the phone unless you have initiated the call and trust that business. • Use secure computing methods to deter hackers from obtaining your information. Use safe passwords and change them often.
Close accounts, call FTCIf you think your personal information may have gotten into the wrong hands, the FTC suggests closing credit card and bank accounts immediately. When opening new accounts, place passwords on them. When creating passwords, don’t use your mother’s maiden name, your birth date, the last four digits of your SSN, your phone number or a series of consecutive numbers. Call the toll-free fraud number of any of the three nationwide consumer reporting companies and place an initial fraud alert. This will help stop someone from opening new credit accounts in your name. For less than $15, you can place a freeze on your credit information that blocks access to your credit report. Contact Equifax at 1-800-525-6285, www.equifax.com; Experian at 1-888-EXPERIAN, www.experian.com; and TransUnion at 1-800-680-7289, www.transunion.com. Contact the Department of Motor Vehicles and Social Security office and follow its procedures to cancel documents and get a replacement. Ask the agency to flag your file so that no one else can get a driver’s license or any other identification document in your name. Once you’ve taken these precautions, watch for signs that your information is being misused. If you see signs, file a report with the police. Be sure to keep a copy of the police report to give to companies who need proof of a crime. Tell the FTC if your identity has been stolen. This can help law enforcement officials across the nation track down thieves and stop them. The FTC can refer victims’ complaints to other government agencies and companies for further action, as well as investigate companies for violations of laws the agency enforces. Complaints can be filed online at www.ftc.gov/idtheft.
(April R. Sorrow is a science writer with the University of Georgia Public Affairs Office.)