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Protecting Your Identity
These days we have to protect everything from being stolen, from our bikes to our houses. But until recently we didn't have to give much thought to protecting our most important possession - our identity.
Identity theft usually consists of the unauthorized use of our credit and ATM cards, checking accounts, Social Security number, and/or driver's license to steal money or commit fraud. Normally, you are not responsible to pay merchants and banks for fraudulent purchases and withdrawals, but identity theft can have long term effects on your credit history and worse, on your sense of trust and security.
Identity thieves are often highly skilled, but taking a few basic precautions will increase your chance to avoid becoming a victim by making it difficult for them to get the information they need.
Shred It All
Buy a "confetti" or "cross-cut" shredder and shred everything that has any personal information on it before you put it in the trash. The tiny pieces produced by a confetti type shredder are much harder for an identity thief to piece together than the relatively large strips produced by a regular shredder. If you keep financial or personal information on your home computer, and make copies or backups onto CDs or DVDs, you should also deface or destroy them before disposing of them. Confetti shredders that will shred CDs and DVDs as well as paper are available for less than $100.
Shield Your Information
When you use an ATM or buy something using a Point-of-Sale device, shield what you're doing from prying eyes. Thieves have been known to obtain personal information by peeking over the shoulders of their victims. Be careful.
Protect Your Mail
Incoming mail routinely contains an enormous amount of personal information. While you're at work or school your mail lies on your porch or sticks out of your mailbox waiting for an identity thief to use its contents to steal your personal information. You can protect your mail and yourself by buying a heavy duty mailbox with a key lock, or by renting a post office or mail box. When you go away on vacation arrange to have your mail picked up daily, or have the post office stop delivery while you're away.
Outgoing mail can also be a gold mine of personal information for identity thieves. A paid bill on the porch waiting for the mail carrier contains a check, and checks have account numbers, addresses, and your signature on them. Some checks imprudently have telephone, drivers' license or Social Security numbers printed on them. Don't leave outgoing mail for the carrier. Drop it into a mailbox on your way to work or school.
Have What You Need If the Worst Happens
Keep a file of all your bank and credit accounts. Include the creditor's name, account number, contact address and telephone, PIN number (if applicable). This file will be incredibly handy if your wallet or purse is lost or stolen or you find you've become a victim of identity theft.
There are three credit reporting agencies. Because each agency has different members reporting to it, each agency will have slightly different information. A full credit report will actually be three reports: one from each agency.
Credit reports cost $8 to $10 per report ($8 in California). They are
free for victims of identity theft, if you've been turned down for credit,
or if you are unemployed or receiving welfare.
If you are the victim of identity theft, it is vital that you act quickly and assertively to minimize the damage to your name and your financial reputation. There are many excellent publications and you may find it helpful to read them. But do so before you become a victim. If the worst happens you won't have time to read a book. Be prepared. If you discover you are a victim immediately take the following steps.
Report the situation to the fraud units of all three credit reporting agencies. Since April 2003, when you notify one credit bureau, they notify the other two, but it won't hurt to do it yourself and it might help. Report that your identifying information is being used by an unauthorized person or people to obtain credit fraudulently in your name. Ask that your file be flagged with a Fraud Alert. Fraud alerts usually expire after 90 to 180 days. Ask that that period be extended to 7 years. Add a victim's statement to your credit report. Obtain and keep a copy of this statement. Print out or ask the credit agency to send you a copy of your credit report. Save it as part of your fraud documentation.
Under a recent California law, victims of identity theft are, upon request, entitled to receive one free credit report each month for the twelve months following the crime.
Creditors - New and Existing Accounts
Review your credit report to see which creditors have reported activity that is fraudulent. Immediately contact all new and existing creditors that have become involved, by telephone and again in writing, including a copy of the Fraud Report in each. If you wish to maintain an account with a business, replace the existing account with new account with a different account number. Report all existing accounts as "lost or stolen".
Driver's License Number Misuse
Call the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) in your state to find out if a new driver's license has been issued in your name. If possible, put a fraud alert on your license. Visit your state's Department of Motor Vehicles for full details on how obtain a new driver's license.
Report the crime to the local police department or sheriffs' office. Give them as much documented evidence as you can. Make sure the report lists the fraudulent accounts and request a copy of the report. Obtain the name and badge number of the officer working on your case and provide the information to creditors or others who require verification of your situation. It is a violation of Federal Law (18 USC 1028) and California State Law (Ca. Penal Code 530.5) to assume someone's identity for fraudulent purposes. Some law enforcement agencies prefer not to write reports on identity theft crimes, so be persistent.
Keep a Complete Record
When dealing with the authorities, creditors and financial institutions keep a log of names, dates, times, correspondence addresses and telephone numbers include a synopsis of all conversations. Follow up all conversations in writing, recapping the conversation and any conclusions that were reached. Keep a file of all correspondence. Send all correspondence by certified mail, return receipt requested. Print out and file all email. Keep a record of the amount of time you spend working on the matter: you may later be able to seek restitution.
• Please visit the website of the Federal Trade Commission’s ID Theft home page. You will find assistance, forms and brochures, which will assist you if you’ve had your identity stolen.
• FTC’s Identity Theft Helpline, 1-877-ID-THEFT
• California DMV Fraud hotline, 1-866-658-5758, or email to DLFraud@DMV.CA.gov
Information on this Web site is subject to changes without notice. Every effort is made to ensure that information is current and accurate. The statements found on this Web site are for informational purposes only.
This page was last updated Dec 16, 2009