Identity Theft

Identity theft is big business. Losses to businesses total $50 billion annually, the Federal Trade Commission reports. In the last five years, 27 million Americans have had their identities stolen, with 246,000 complaints to the FTC in 2006 alone. To those whose identity is stolen, the aftermath is aggravation, confusion and hours of wasted time.

You, too, could be a victim of id theft. It occurs when someone pretends to be you, using your Social Security number, your credit cards and your bank account numbers to borrow money, open new credit card accounts or charge thousands of dollars to buy cars, clothes or vacations.

Stealing Your Good Name

The identity thief gets your personal information in many inventive ways. Rings of identity thieves often go to city dumps or apartment dumpsters to comb through trash to get receipts with names and financial information.

Email fishing expeditions are another way. Pretending to be eBay users or businesses you have used, the crooks email you saying that a question about your account has come up and they just want to make sure your information is correct. Identity thieves are skilled liars.

Identity thieves also do the following:

  • Steal your purse or wallet
  • Pilfer information from your mail box such as bank statements and pre-approved credit card applications
  • Act as your employer, loan officer or landlord to get your credit report
  • Watch your transactions at automated teller machines and phone booths to capture your ATM card personal identification number (PIN)

Guarding Yourself

In the face of the increasing epidemic of id theft, what can you do? The first thing is to get as much information about identity theft as you can. Read articles in the newspapers and magazines. Watch TV programs that discuss identity theft. Check your credit report at least once a year and correct any errors.

Next, don't give out your Social Security number unless it's absolutely required, for example by the federal or state governments. Don't have your number printed on your checks. Get a new driver's license that doesn't show your number. Some businesses routinely include Social Security numbers on their application forms. . Ask any business why it needs your number. When customers resist, managers usually waive it.

Other steps you can take include:

  • Carefully get rid of papers with personal information. Tear up or shred charge receipts, bank statements, expired credit cards, credit offers.
  • Cut back the number of cards you carry. Don't routinely take your Social Security number, birth certificate or passport with you.
  • Be aware of others who are nearby when you're using your PIN. Don't throw your ATM receipt in the wastebasket.
  • Don't give your credit card or bank account number over the phone, through the mail, or over the Internet unless you confirm you are dealing with an actual representative of a legitimate business.
  • Secure personal information in your home, especially if you employ outside help or are having work done in your home.
  • Be extra careful about what you reveal about yourself when you are online at social networking sites, chat rooms, genealogy or class reunion sites. You never know who is watching. Identity thieves could be cruising these sites for clues to piece together just what they need to steal your identity.

For more information about ways to protect yourself from identify theft, visit the Federal Trade Commission website at: http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/microsites/idtheft/