With interest rates at an all-time low, the Smiths decided to refinance their home. They contacted their local banking institution and started the necessary paperwork. They ordered their credit report and were shocked to find that they had three credit card accounts with delinquent balances. They had never applied for the credit cards and the outstanding balances totaled over $20,000. The nightmare started.
The Smiths soon learned that they were victims of identity theft. They began the very long, tedious process of clearing their credit. Adding to their grief, the refinancing of their home was also delayed. The Smiths were, therefore, victimized again because they missed out on the lower interest rates.
Anyone is Vulnerable
Sounds unbelievable, but it could happen to you! Think about your daily activities. You go to the grocery store and write a check. What type of information is on your check: name, address, telephone number, driver’s license number, social security number?
Wait a minute! Take that social security number off your personal checks. In fact, your social security number should be your most protected information.
If a thief has access to your name and social security number, that information can be used to open fraudulent accounts. Innocent people have discovered utility, department store and other credit accounts opened in their name and it is usually accomplished using a stolen social security number. Do not give out your social security number unless it is absolutely necessary.
Protect Social Security Numbers
Many forms have an area for the social security number, but you should question why the number is needed. A social security number is needed for loan/credit applications and certain other financial transactions. But the video store and car rental agency certainly don’t need it. Be aware that your social security number is not necessary for check cashing or credit purchases. If you are asked for this information, ask to speak with the store manager to verify the need for this information.
Aside from guarding your social security number, guard all your personal information. Do you receive pre-approved credit applications in the mail? What do you do with them? Throw them in the trash? Think again. This mailer contains your name, address, and perhaps other personal information.
If you carelessly toss it in the trash, a dumpster diver can use this information to steal your identity or pass it on or sell it to someone else. Your mailbox is an excellent source of information. Many thieves wander through neighborhoods looking for “easy” mailboxes. These are unlocked mailboxes that are usually adjacent to the curb or affixed to a house. A red flag indicating outgoing mail is an invitation to a thief. What’s in your outgoing mail? A Visa payment? A card and a check for your nephew’s sixteenth birthday? Checks that a thief can easily alter. Additionally, if you are mailing credit card payments, the thief now has not only your personal checks, but also your credit card account numbers. He can then fraudulently charge items to your account without your knowledge. Remember that personal information is easy to obtain.
Consider the following safety tips that will help prevent you from becoming a victim of identity theft:
- Shred or tear up pre-approved credit card applications, and other mail with your social security number, bank account and credit card account numbers before throwing them into the trash.
- Never throw mail with personal information into trash bins at post offices.
- Do not leave information with personal and financial information in your vehicle.
- Review bank and credit card statements each month for fraudulent activity. If anything is amiss, immediately report the problem to your bank or credit card company.
- If your bills do not arrive in a timely manner, contact your creditors. Your bills may have been lost in the mail or stolen.
- Before giving out any personal information to a company, ask how the information will be used and whether it will be transferred to third parties (mailing lists).
- Periodically, order your credit report from the three major credit reporting agencies and check for accuracy.
- Do not leave receipts at the ATM machine and gas pump.
- Limit the amount of credit cards and personal information that you carry in your wallet. If you have old credit accounts that you don’t use, cancel the accounts and cut up the cards.
- Do not carry your social security card in your wallet. Memorize the number.
- Do not write credit account numbers on checks or the outside of envelopes when paying bills.
- Be extremely careful about divulging personal information such as place of employment, employee identification number or mother’s maiden name. These are key components in identity theft.
- Buy a shredder, and use it.
Take A Stand
If you become a victim of identity theft, take a stand!
Contact law enforcement and complete a crime report. Report the theft of your credit cards or numbers to the fraud units of the three major credit reporting agencies* and ask that your accounts be flagged. Add a victim’s statement to your report (up to 100 words) that includes a statement such as “... my ID has been used to apply for credit fraudulently. Contact me by telephone to verify any and all credit applications.” Find out how long the fraud alert is posted to your account and extend it if necessary. This fraud alert is not a guarantee that your credit is safe. It is a precaution. Continue to monitor your credit reports. If your social security number has been used in an identity theft, it is imperative that you notify the Social Security Administration Hotline as soon as possible.
Next, contact all creditors with whom your name has been used fraudulently - by phone and in writing. Send all correspondence by registered mail. This will establish documentation of your efforts. Keep all receipts of expenses and document the amount of time that you spend clearing your name. Ask creditors for replacement cards with new account numbers for the accounts that have been used fraudulently.
Ask that the old accounts be processed as “account closed at consumer’s request.”
Creditors may request that you fill out and notarize fraud affidavits. In California, the law does not require that a notarized affidavit be provided to creditors. A written statement and a copy of the police report may be enough.
Check Credit Reports
After you have taken these steps to protect yourself or re-establish your good credit, check your credit reports again.
This is the only way to determine if someone has taken your identity. Many victims have no idea how their identity was taken, but they will always remember their wasted time, the many telephone calls to creditors and police, and most of all, the invasion of their privacy.
Is it over yet? Maybe. Maybe not. Even though you may have spent hundreds of hours restoring your good name, your personal information could have been sold to someone else. Inaccurate information may still appear on your credit report in the future. That is why you need to check your credit reports on a regular basis. Don’t rely on law enforcement to make this problem go away. Often, the identity of the perpetrator is
unknown. Some cybercrooks do not use your personal information to commit identity theft themselves - they obtain the information and sell it to others who do. So, even if law enforcement makes an arrest in your case, your personal information may still be out there waiting for the next thief to steal your identity. The bottom line is this: be careful with your personal information.
If you have had checks stolen or bank accounts set up fraudulently, report it to the check verification companies. Put stop payments on any outstanding checks that you are unsure of.
Cancel your checking and savings accounts and obtain new account numbers. Give the bank a secret password for your account (not mother’s maiden name).
To report fraudulent use of your checks:
- CheckRite: 800-766-2748
- Chexsystems: 800-428-9623
- Equifax: 800-437-5120
- National Processing Co.: 800-526-5380 SCAN: 800-262-7771
- TeleCheck: 800-710-9898
Other useful resources:
Federal Government Information Center: Call 800-688-9889 for help in obtaining government agency phone numbers.
Major credit reporting bureaus
P.O. Box 740250
Atlanta, GA 30374-0250
Report fraud: Call 800-525-6285 and write to the address above.
Order credit report: 800-685-1111
P.O. Box 1010
Allen, TX 75013
Report fraud: Call (888) EXPERIAN or 888-397-3742 and write to the address above.
Order credit report: same telephone numbers as above.
P.O. Box 6790
Fullerton, CA 92634
Report fraud: Call 800-680-7289 and write to the address above.
Order credit report: 800-888-4213
You are entitled to a free credit report if you are a victim of identity theft (you may be asked to provide a copy or the number from a police crime report). If you want to check your credit report, you may have to pay a fee. Contact each bureau for a fee schedule.
U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
The FTC oversees the operation of the major credit reporting bureaus. The FTC website includes a copy of the Fair Credit Reporting Act. The FTC also provides assistance to identity theft victims and you can also access a complaint form on this website.
The FTC Consumer Response Center can be reached at: (202) FTC-HELP
U.S. Social Security Administration
Report fraud: 800-269-0271
Social Security Website
To remove your name from mail and phone lists, contact:
Direct Marketing Association
Mail Preference Service
P.O. Box 9008
Farmingdale, NY 11735
Telephone Preference Service
P.O. Box 9014
Farmingdale, NY 11735
California Bureau of Investigation
Department of Justice
Sacramento, CA 95820
High Tech Task Forces
Sacramento Valley Hi-Tech Crimes Task Force
c/o Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department
711 G Street
Sacramento, CA 95814
Silicon Valley/Bay Area:
Rapid Enforcement Allied Computer Team (REACT)
950 S Bascom Avenue
San Jose, CA 95128
High Tech Crime Task Force
c/o Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department
11515 Colima Road - M104
Whittier, CA 90604