In a 2004 study, the Ways and Means Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives reported that, in 2003 alone, almost 10 million Americans had become victims of identity theft. The crime cost consumers about $5 billion out-of-pocket and costs American business around $50 billion. As increasing news reports indicate, identity theft is the crime of the era. It’s increasing rapidly. Unfortunately, it’s also a difficult crime to catch and prosecute.
In 2003, victims of identity theft spent anywhere from $500 to $1200 and from 30 to 60 hours of their personal time trying to resolve the financial problems created by identity theft. Further, the crime itself occurred over a three- to six-month period in each known case.
We all hope we never become victims of identity theft. For one thing, you usually don’t learn you’re a victim until some debt collector calls you about a bill or a loan application is denied because of your poor credit history or low credit score. This news comes as a shocking surprise to most victims of identity theft, and the personal agony of financial loss and effort needed to resolve the problem take a huge toll. Identity theft victims often report they feel as violated as they would if they had been mugged or their house had been burglarized.
Today, prevention and early detection are best solutions to the identity theft problem. These criminals have a variety of ways to get your personal financial information. They may steal it from your garbage in the form of old bills or pre-approved credit offers. They may trick you on the phone or by e-mail into giving out your personal information. Someone you know and trust may have access to your personal information. Or perhaps someone with good eyesight is standing behind you, watching you enter your PIN at the ATM machine or grocery counter. These things are within your control, but there are other tactics outside your control. Identity thieves also trick the information out of banks and businesses, claiming they are research for a non-existent company or using false identities to secure the information. Hackers may sneak into the databases of large companies and download the information they keep for their clientele.
Once they have your personal information, they can submit false address change reports to your bank or creditors. They can apply for mortgages or loans or make purchases against your credit cards. You won’t know about it until the *#(& hits the fan, and your credit history is ruined.
1. How Can I Tell if Someone is using my Personal Financial Information Illegally?
So how do you know that an identity thief may be targeting your personal information? What are the signs to look for? And what do you do if you think you are a victim of identity theft? Here are a few of the things you can watch for to protect your personal financial information and your identity:
1. Order a credit report, at the very least, once a year. If a close review of your credit report reveals accounts you’ve never heard of or loans you did not make, you may be a victim. The report could also contain inquiries about your credit from merchants and vendors you didn’t apply to. These are all important red flags, and you should follow-up on the information immediately.
2. You receive a bill or statement from a company you didn’t open an account with.
3. You notice unauthorized or incorrect changes on your credit card or bank statement.
4. You get calls from business owners or debt collectors who claim you have a bill that is overdue for a product or service you never ordered or received.
5. You are denied approval of a loan or credit card application, even when you know your credit is good.
If you’ve noticed any of these warning signs, follow up immediately by contacting the credit card company, bank, or credit report agency with questions. Don’t accept inadequate answers to your questions. And continue to follow-up until all your questions have been answered and your credit account or report is accurate and up-to-date.
If you find you can’t resolve issues easily, you may be an identity theft victim already. Report this problem to law enforcement authorities immediately. Contact your bank, your creditors, and the credit report agencies to let them know the problem is occurring and ask them to freeze your accounts. Add special passwords that anyone inquiring about our using your accounts must know to get a transaction approved. Do what you can to find out what the identity thief has done. For example, where have they opened accounts or where have the applied for loans. Can you find another address associated with your name that is not familiar to you? If you identify the identity thief, do not contact them directly. Rather provide that information to law enforcement.
2. What Can I do to Prevent Identity Theft Before it Happens?
To avoid becoming a victim of identity theft, follow these guidelines:
1. Keep a very close eye on your credit card activities. Check statements closely as soon as you receive them, and confirm that you made or approved all of the purchases. If there are questionable charges on your statement, contact the company immediately to find out when and where the purchase was made and to formally dispute the charge. You might be surprised to know how many people fail to review their statements carefully each month. Failure to attend to your accounts could leave you thousands, even hundreds of thousands, in debt with no products or services to show for it.
2. Request credit report updates at least twice a year. Look for a lower-than-expected credit score, unfamiliar accounts, or credit inquries from companies you don’t do business with.
3. Be careful to protect your personal financial papers. Keep them in a secure location, preferably under lock and key. And don’t allow other people to access them without your express permission.
4. Be alert when you’re writing checks or using your ATM card. Is there anyone near enough who could read and steal personal information or your PIN number? Becareful to protect these items from view.
5. Deliver your bill payments directly to the post office, and don’t let your mail sit in your mail box too long. This is an open invitation to the ever-vigilant identity thief.
6. Use unexpected and unique passwords on all your internet accouts, mixing letters with numbers and symbols. And change your passwords at least every six months.
Keep up on the news about new identity theft strategies and scams. Read the paper and surf the internet to find out who’s doing what these days. Make sure you know what your creditors do with their customers’ personal information and demand they protect it.
Avoid becoming a victim of identity theft by applying common sense and careful thought to your everyday transactions. Question people who ask for inappropriate information and feel empowered to refuse to answer. Remember that you may not know your co-workers and acquaintances very well. Do not share your information with anyone you don’t trust 100%.