How Identity Theft Strikes
First, what exactly is identity theft? Identity theft occurs when someone steals your personal information to take over your credit accounts, open new ones, take out a loan, rent an apartment, access bank accounts, or commit many other crimes using your identity.
When it strikes, the effects can be devastating. What's more, because it frequently involves no physical theft, identity theft may not be noticed by its victims until significant damage has been done -- often, several months and thousands of dollars later.
How do Thieves Steal and use your Personal Information?
First, they steal your personal information by...
- Going through your mail or trash, looking for bank and credit card statements, pre-approved credit offers, and tax information.
- Stealing personal information from your wallet or purse such as identification, credit, or bank cards.
- Completing change-of-address forms to redirect your mail.
- Obtaining your credit report by posing as a landlord or someone else who has a lawful right to the information.
- Acquiring personal information you share on unsecured sites on the Internet.
- Buying personal information about you from an inside source -- for example, a store employee that gets your information from a credit application or by "skimming" your credit card information when you make a purchase.
- Getting your personnel records at work.
Then they use your personal information by...
- Opening new credit card accounts using your name, date of birth, and Social Security number. When they use the credit cards and don't pay the bills, the delinquency is reported on your credit report.
- Establishing phone or cellular service in your name.
- Opening a bank account in your name and writing bad checks on the account.
- Counterfeiting checks or debit cards, and draining your bank account.
- Buying cars by taking out auto loans in your name.
- Calling your credit card issuer and, pretending to be you, changing the address on the account. Bills get sent to the new address, so you don't realize there's a problem until you check your credit report.
- Filing for bankruptcy using your name to avoid paying debts they've incurred under your name.
Monitor Your Credit Report Closely
Unless you check your credit report frequently, there's often no way to tell if identity thieves have used your personal information to obtain credit accounts or other services in your name.
To help protect yourself, subscribe to Equifax Credit Watch™ credit report monitoring service, and get an early alert to new and suspicious activity on your report, identity theft insurance, and access to your credit report.
No Credit Card Is Necessary
Credit card fraud is just one type of identity theft. While a thief may use your information to apply for a new credit card, some types of identity theft don't involve credit cards at all. Someone with a bad credit rating may use your personal information to get a car loan, acquire phone, cellular service, or another utility service, or open a bank account in your name.
Such cases can be seriously damaging, since you may not realize anything is wrong until you notice unfamiliar charges on your monthly bills or statements.
Identity Theft Facts
According to the Federal Trade Commission, identity theft complaints are broken down as follows:
- About 50% reported that a credit card was opened in their name
- 25% reported that the thief established new telephone, cellular, or another service in their name
- 16% reported that a bank account was opened in their name, or unauthorized withdrawals had been made from their account
- 9% reported that the thief obtained a loan in their name
- 8% reported that the thief obtained a fraudulent document such as a driver's license
Preventing Identity Theft
Unfortunately, it's not possible to prevent identity theft and credit fraud entirely. However, by managing your personal information carefully, and with a full understanding of its importance, you can substantially reduce the likelihood that it will happen to you. The following tips show you how.
How to Outsmart Identity Thieves
Be careful about giving out personal information. Whether on the phone, by mail, or on the Internet, never give anyone your card number, Social Security number, or other personal information for a purpose you don't understand. Ask to use other types of identifiers when possible, and don't carry your SSN card. Be sure to keep it in a secure place.
Protect your mail. To stop a thief from obtaining personal information about you by going through your through trash or recycling bin, tear or shred your charge receipts, credit applications, insurance forms, bank statements, expired charge cards, and preapproved credit offers. Deposit outgoing mail in post office collection boxes or at your local post office. Promptly remove mail from your mailbox after it's delivered. If you plan to go away, call the U.S. Postal Service at 800-275-8777 and request a vacation hold.
Guard your credit cards. Minimize the information and the number of cards you carry in your wallet. If you lose a card, contact the fraud division of the credit card company. If you apply for a new credit card and it doesn't arrive in a reasonable period, contact the issuer. Watch cashiers when you give them your card for a purchase. Also, when you receive a new card, sign it in permanent ink and activate it immediately.
Pay attention to billing cycles. Contact creditors immediately if your bills arrive late. A missing bill could mean an identity thief has taken over your credit card account and changed your billing address.
Safeguard personal information in your home. Especially if you are having service work done in your home, employ outside help, or have a roommate.
Find out who has access to your information at work. Be sure to verify that records are kept in a secure location, and are accessible only to employees who have a legitimate reason to access it.
Be smart about passwords and PINs. Memorize your passwords and personal identification numbers instead of carrying them with you. Avoid using easily available information like your mother's maiden name, your birth date, the last four digits of your SSN or your phone number, or a series of consecutive numbers.
Fraud Alerts. You may place an Initial 90 day Fraud Alert by calling any one of the 3 nationwide credit reporting companies. The agency that accepts your request will share your request with the other two credit reporting companies, which will add the alert to your file or request that you provide them additional information. You will receive a confirmation when an alert is added to your file.
Place a Security Freeze on your credit file.
If you reside in select states you have the right to place a security freeze on your Equifax credit file. To determine the availability of a security freeze for your state and to determine the fees for placing and temporarily lifting a security freeze, please see the State Security Freeze Requirements and Fees. A security freeze will prevent us from reporting your Equifax credit file to third parties, such as credit grantors and other companies and agencies, except those exempted by law or those for whom you contacted us and requested that we temporarily lift the security freeze.
A security freeze will require you to plan ahead for all your credit applications as you will need to contact us to request that we temporarily lift your freeze to allow us to report your Equifax credit file to the credit grantor you identify. Under the laws of most states that allow security freezes, it may take up to three business days to process your request to temporarily lift the security freeze. It may take longer if you have lost the security freeze confirmation number which we provided to you when you first requested the security freeze be placed on your credit file. You may not be able to request a temporary lift of a security freeze during non-business hours or on weekends. A security freeze may hinder your ability to immediately obtain credit to make major purchases. Accordingly, if you are credit active and apply for credit on a regular basis and have a security freeze on your Equifax credit file you need to be especially mindful of the need to plan ahead and contact us in advance to request a temporary lift of the security freeze on your Equifax credit file.
Active Duty Alert. You may request an active duty alert, which will remain on your file for 12 months, by calling any one of the nationwide credit reporting companies. This alert removes your name from pre-screened offers of credit for 2 years. You will receive a confirmation when an alert is added to your credit file.
Sharing of Alerts. The nationwide credit reporting company that accepts your request for a Fraud or Active Duty alert will share your request with the other two nationwide credit reporting companies, which will add the alert to your credit file or request that you provide them additional information.
Important Credit Facts
Zero responsibility doesn't mean zero problems. Because credit card companies must limit consumer responsibility to $50 in most cases of fraud, and because many new cards include "zero responsibility" protection, some people think there's no reason to worry about credit fraud. But in its most advanced form -- identity theft -- credit fraud can cause wide-ranging long-term problems. Identity thieves can use your personal information to take over your credit accounts and open new ones. They may even use your good credit to get a job, take out a car loan, or rent an apartment.
Check your credit report regularly. Checking your credit report can help you catch inaccuracies and fraud before they wreak havoc on your personal finances. Make sure your credit report is accurate and includes only those activities you've authorized. It's also a good idea to review your credit report from each of the three major credit reporting agencies every year -- it's possible that information is reported to one but not the others.
Get the 3-in-1 Credit Report™ and see your credit history as reported by the three major credit reporting agencies. You can also subscribe to Equifax's Credit Watch™ credit report monitoring service, and get an early alert to new and suspicious activity on your credit report. Equifax Credit Watch™ also gives you up to $20,000 identity theft insurance depending on program.
Did You Know?
Although the problem is nationwide, states with the highest incidence of identity theft are California, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Georgia, Texas, Illinois, and Washington.