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Protecting Yourself From Identity theft
November 1st, 2013
Although identity theft is an age-old crime, our modern world offers unprecedented access to vast amounts of personal information, which has caused it to become increasingly prevalent. As a result, the modern consumer must understand the causes of identity theft, how to prevent it, and how to respond should it happen to them.
According to the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics, 8.6 million households, or about 7% of all households in the country, were victims of identity theft (also known as identity fraud) in 2010. Identity fraud can take many shapes, such as opening a new utility account for phone or power service, or by acquiring a new loan. Identity fraud is also used to obtain free medical benefits, to rent a house, and even to give to secure a job in your name. Despite the many forms in which it can manifest, the most common form of identity fraud is committed with the intent of obtaining access to an old or new credit card account.
What is Identity Theft?
According to Merriam-Webster, the formal definition of identity theft is, "the illegal use of someone else's personal information (as a Social Security number) in order to obtain money or credit." Despite the fact that identity theft has been around as long as we've had identities, the first known use of the term was in 1964. The most common forms of identity theft include:
- Child Identity Theft - This is the specific targeting of a minor child to steal their identity. According to the Identity Theft Resource Center, victims of this type of crime fall into two categories; those who had their identity stolen as a child but did not learn of the crime until adulthood, and those who have their identity stolen and are presently children. Victims in the latter category must have their parents represent them.
- Financial Identity Theft - Occurring when an individual's identity is stolen with the express intent of using it for financial gain, this can include fraudulent credit cards, bank loans, and even checking accounts.
- Governmental Identity Theft - This usually occurs within the IRS' jurisdiction, and primarily relates to tax returns.
- Medical Identity Theft - There are three main forms of medical identity theft; criminal, which occurs when you are charged for another individual's crime; financial, occurring when another individual is using your information to obtain medical treatment; and governmental, which is when another individual is using your information to access your medical benefits.
An individual's identity can be stolen in countless ways, including stealing pre-approved credit card offers from the mail, snatching someone's wallet or purse while in public, and even by simply spying on someone while they withdraw money from the ATM. More high tech methods include "phishing," which occurs when an unsolicited email or online pop-up ad appears and requests an individual's account information under the guise of security. Another method becoming increasingly popular is the use of software programs that record a user's keystrokes, which can later be compiled to reveal sensitive personal information.
How Can I Protect My Identity?
Protecting your identity is as simple, or as difficult, as controlling the amount of available information for criminals to get their hands on. This can mean vigilantly checking to make sure your wallet remains on you while in public, obtaining your mail soon after it's delivered, and shredding any that you're not going to keep. If you receive a suspicious email in your inbox asking for financial information, delete it immediately. If you're unsure if the email is legitimate, pick up the phone and call the company directly. From a computing perspective, it is recommended to always operate behind a firewall, in addition to implementing anti-virus software.
But perhaps the most important suggestion of all is to consistently monitor your credit report. Every consumer is entitled to receive a free credit report from all three reporting agencies once every 12 months, though there are numerous online companies that will allow you to check your credit report as often as you like, and who will also notify you if any uncommon activity shows up. Because your credit report is directly impacted by identity theft, it often acts as the first signal that something is amiss.
How Do I Know If My Identity Has Been Stolen?
The United States Federal Trade Commission suggests several tips that consumers should keep in mind when watching for signs of identity theft. These include:
-Bills and statements beginning to arrive late in the mail.
-The sudden appearance of collection notices, and/or debt collection calls.
-Mistakes on your financial statements.
-Unusual communication regarding accounts related to your minor child.
-The IRS notifying you that your Social Security number may have been compromised.
Identity thieves typically act quickly, and will only use an account for a few days or weeks before moving on to their next victim. Because of this, time is of the essence, and any suspicious activity should be reported immediately in order to increase the odds they will be caught.
What Should I Do If My Identity Has Been Stolen?
As with protecting your identity, the first thing you should do if your identity has been stolen is to obtain your credit report from all three reporting bureaus. This gives you a basic outline of any activity affecting it, including account information that may have been opened fraudulently. At this time, you will also need to contact one of the reporting bureaus and place a fraud alert on your account, which will immediately freeze any new accounts from being opened until after the applicant's identity has been verified. This information will also be passed along to the other two reporting agencies, though you may wish to contact them directly for faster service.
It is suggested you also contact your local police department to alert them of the fraud, which will result in the opening of a new case. However, it is highly recommended that you keep everything in perspective regarding the situation. The reality is that identity theft occurs approximately 17 times every minute in the United States, and authorities are often overwhelmed by the number of reported cases each day. Because of this, it is usually only the most dire and criminal cases that have sufficient resources put behind them. Since the individual who stole your identity could be almost anywhere in the world, the likelihood of them being caught is relatively low. Contacting the FTC is a good idea as well, since this will allow you to have one more piece of official documentation in your file.
Next, contact any lenders where the thieves opened new accounts, and inform them of the situation. You may be required to fill out some minor paperwork, but the account will usually be closed immediately thereafter. At this point, it is recommended you also speak with the company regarding the possibility of having the fraudulent charges removed from your statement.
Finally, make sure all your anti-virus and anti-spyware software is up to date. The thieves may have stolen the information directly from your computer, which means you need to make sure they no longer have access. If you're unsure how to determine if this software is functioning properly and is up to date, contact a local computer professional for assistance. Also, it is recommended to change all online passwords, especially for those dealing with financial institutions.
Identity theft isn't going away any time soon, and it's up to you as a consumer to do everything within your power to ensure your private information remains confidential. With just a little bit of effort, you can make it much more difficult for thieves to steal your information, and to make certain your good name remains untarnished.