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August 2014

According to the IRS, identity theft occurs when someone uses your personal information such as your name, Social Security Number or other identifying information, without your permission, to commit fraud or other crimes. Identity theft is a serious crime and it is emotionally troubling, extremely time-intensive to resolve and difficult to completely repair. Victims of identity theft may lose job opportunities, be refused loans, education, housing or transportation, and may even be arrested for crimes they did not commit.

Common ways identity thieves access your information include: a stolen wallet or credit card, documents or receipts taken from the trash, phone or e-mail scams, and hacking unsecured computers or wireless networks. Once identify thieves gain access to personal information, they can purchase items on your credit card, open new credit cards, or even file a fraudulent tax return in your name.

Here are 15 tips on how to help prevent becoming a victim of identity theft:

  1. Be careful of "Dumpster Diving". Make sure that you do not throw anything away that someone could use to “become” you. These include anything with your personal identifiers, which are your name, date of birth, Social Security Number, etc. Documents containing any of that information should be shredded before being thrown away. If you do not have access to a shredder, tear up the document into many small pieces and discard them in multiple trash receptacles. You may also wet torn-up pieces and roll them into a tight ball.
  2. Use caution at ATM's and gas stations. Make sure no one is standing close behind you, as "Shoulder Surfers" can get your PIN number, giving them access to your accounts. Criminals also use a technique call “skimming”. This involves installing a magnetic strip reader inside or around the card insert area of the ATM or gas station card reader slot that can steal your name, account number and PIN number. These devices are typically visible but hard to detect unless you know what you are looking for. See the photos below and do an Internet search on “skimming” if you want to learn more.

    ATM skim machine

    ATM skimmingATM skimming explanation

  3. Get all of your personal checks delivered to your bank—not to your home address.
  4. Do not put checks for pick-up in the mail from your home mailbox. Instead, drop them off at a U.S. Mailbox or the U.S. Post Office. Mail theft is common, as it is easy to change the name of the recipient on the check with simple chemicals.
  5. Be mindful when ordering new credit cards and when replacing expired cards. Confirm your address and get the shipping and expected delivery dates from your provider. Track delivery closely and call the provider if the card is not delivered by the expected date.
  6. Use strong passwords on all your accounts. Do not use your mother's maiden name or the simplest password of all, the word “password”. Make up a fictitious word or replace letters with common symbols (e.g., a=@, s=$, I=!, etc.).
  7. Empty your wallet of all extra credit or debit cards. Do not carry any identifiers such as your birth certificate, social security card, or passport around with you unless necessary.
  8. Do not provide your personal information to anyone who initiates a call to you. If it is a reputable company, call back using the company’s main number.
  9. Do not put your credit card account number on the Internet unless it is encrypted on a secured site.
  10. Monitor all your bank statements from every credit card every month. Check to see if there are any charges that you do not recognize and call the credit grantor to verify that it is truly yours.
  11. Order your credit report at least once a year from each of the three credit reporting agencies. Review it carefully to insure that only the credit you have opened is on your history. You have the right to one free credit report per year from each of the credit reporting bureaus. This is one of the most useful ways to protect yourself from identity theft. If you see anything that appears fraudulent, immediately put a fraud alert on your credit reports. To do this, go to the website of each of the major credit report providers:
    Experian: www.experian.com
    Equifax: www.equifax.com
    TransUnion: www.transunion.com
  12. Immediately correct all mistakes on your credit reports in writing. Send those letters Return Receipt Requested to the credit reporting agency and include a copy of the credit card report identifying the problems item by item. You should hear back from them within 30 days.
  13. Take your name off all promotional lists. The three credit reporting agencies can be contacted to opt out of pre-approved offers. You may also go to the Direct Marketing Association website to remove yourself from direct marketing lists - https://www.dmachoice.org/
  14. Make a list of all your credit card account numbers and bank account numbers (or photocopy) with customer service phone numbers, and keep it in a safe place. Do not keep the list on the hard drive of your computer if you are connected to the Internet.
  15. Regard Internet solicitations with extreme caution. There are many identity theft scams that seek to acquire your bank account numbers and security passwords. Only give such information to reputable sites you access directly.

Instructions for Identity Theft Victims:

Follow up immediately if you discover that you have been a victim of identity theft by contacting the police and all credit card companies and banks in order to report the crime and cancel the affected cards and accounts. Acting promptly minimizes your liability and protects yourself.

If you believe you may be at risk of identity theft due to a lost/stolen purse or wallet, questionable credit card activity or credit report, etc., you are encouraged to contact the IRS Identity Protection Specialized Unit, toll-free at 1-800-908-4490. You will need to fill out the IRS Identity Theft Affidavit, Form 14039.

Here are other resources for identity theft victims.

Federal Trade Commission
You may also use the FTC's Complaint Assistant

Actions to take in the case of identity theft
Internet Crime Complaint Center
IC3 is a partnership among the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National White Collar Crime Center and the Bureau of Justice Assistance.