What is Identity Theft?
Identity theft occurs when someone uses your personal information without your permission to commit fraud or other crimes. While you can't entirely control whether you will become a victim, you can take steps to protect yourself.
How can I minimize my risk?
- Order a copy of your credit report. An amendment to the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act requires each of the major nationwide consumer reporting companies to provide you with a free copy of your credit reports, at your request, once every 12 months. Under federal law, you're also entitled to a free report if a company takes adverse action against you, such as denying your application for credit, insurance or employment, and you request your report within 60 days of receiving notice of the action. The notice will give you the name, address, and phone number of the consumer reporting company that supplied the information about you. You're also entitled to one free report a year if you're unemployed and plan to look for a job within 60 days; you're on welfare; or your report is inaccurate because of fraud. Otherwise, a consumer reporting company may charge you up to $9.50 for any other copies of your report. Under state law, consumers in Massachusetts have free access to their credit reports. If you ask, only the last four digits of your Social Security number will appear on your credit reports.
- Place passwords on your credit card, bank, and phone accounts. Avoid using easily available information like your mother's maiden name, your birth date, the last four digits of your Social Security number or your phone number, or a series of consecutive numbers. When opening new accounts, you may find that many businesses still have a line on their applications for your mother's maiden name. Ask if you can use a password instead.
- Secure personal information in your home, especially if you have roommates, employ outside help, or are having work done in your home.
- Don't give out personal information on the phone, through the mail, or on the Internet unless you've initiated the contact or are sure you know who you're dealing with. Identity thieves are clever, and have posed as representatives of banks, Internet service providers (ISPs), and even government agencies to get people to reveal their Social Security number, mother's maiden name, account numbers, and other identifying information. Before you share any personal information, confirm that you are dealing with a legitimate organization. Check an organization's website by typing its URL in the address line, rather than cutting and pasting it. Many companies post scam alerts when their name is used improperly. Or call customer service using the number listed on your account statement or in the telephone book
- Ask about information security procedures in your workplace or at businesses, doctor's offices or other institutions that collect your personally identifying information. Find out who has access to your personal information and verify that it is handled securely. Ask about the disposal procedures for those records as well. Find out if your information will be shared with anyone else. If so, ask how your information can be kept confidential.
- Deposit your outgoing mail in post office collection boxes or at your local post office, rather than in an unsecured mailbox. Promptly remove mail from your mailbox. If you're planning to be away from home and can't pick up your mail, call the U.S. Postal Service at 1-800-275-8777 to request a vacation hold. The Postal Service will hold your mail at your local post office until you can pick it up or are home to receive it.
- To thwart an identity thief who may pick through your trash or recycling bins to capture your personal information, tear or shred your charge receipts, copies of credit applications, insurance forms, physician statements, checks and bank statements, expired charge cards that you're discarding, and credit offers you get in the mail. To opt out of receiving offers of credit in the mail, call: 1-888-5-OPTOUT (1-888-567-8688). The three nationwide consumer reporting companies use the same toll-free number to let consumers choose not to receive credit offers based on their lists. Note: You will be asked to provide your Social Security number which the consumer reporting companies need to match you with your file.
- Don't carry your Social Security number card; leave it in a secure place.
- Give your Social Security number only when absolutely necessary, and ask to use other types of identifiers. If your state uses your Social Security number as your driver's license number, ask to substitute another number. Do the same if your health insurance company uses your Social Security number as your policy number?
- Carry only the identification information and the credit and debit cards that you'll actually need when you go out.
- Be cautious when responding to promotions. Identity thieves may create phony promotional offers to get you to give them your personal information.
- Keep your purse or wallet in a safe place at work; do the same with copies of administrative forms that have your sensitive personal information.
- When ordering new checks, pick them up from the bank instead of having them mailed to your home mailbox
I have a computer and use the Internet. What should I be concerned about?
You may be careful about locking your doors and windows, and keeping your personal papers in a secure place. Depending on what you use your personal computer for; an identity thief may not need to set foot in your house to steal your personal information. You may store your Social Security number, financial records, tax returns, birth date, and bank account numbers on your computer. These tips can help you keep your computer - and the personal information it stores - safe.
- Virus protection software should be updated regularly, and patches for your operating system and other software programs should be installed to protect against intrusions and infections that can lead to the compromise of your computer files or passwords. Ideally, virus protection software should be set to automatically update each week. The Windows XP operating system also can be set to automatically check for patches and download them to your computer.
- Do not open files sent to you by strangers, or click on hyperlinks or download programs from people you don't know. Be careful about using file-sharing programs. Opening a file could expose your system to a computer virus or a program known as "spyware," which could capture your passwords or any other information as you type it into your keyboard.
- Use a firewall program, especially if you use a high-speed Internet connection like cable, DSL or T-1 that leaves your computer connected to the Internet 24 hours a day. The firewall program will allow you to stop uninvited access to your computer. Without it, hackers can take over your computer, access the personal information stored on it, or use it to commit other crimes.
- Use a secure browser - software that encrypts or scrambles information you send over the Internet - to guard your online transactions. Be sure your browser has the most up-to-date encryption capabilities by using the latest version available from the manufacturer. You also can download some browsers for free over the Internet. When submitting information, look for the "lock" icon on the browser's status bar to be sure your information is secure during transmission.
- Try not to store financial information on your laptop unless absolutely necessary. If you do, use a strong password with a combination of letters (upper and lower case), numbers and symbols. A good way to create a strong password is to think of a memorable phrase and use the first letter of each word as your password, converting some letters into numbers that resemble letters. For example, "I like Milk it's good to drink," would become 1LmigTD. Don't use an automatic log-in feature that saves your user name and password, and always log off when you're finished. That way, if your laptop is stolen, it's harder for a thief to access your personal information.
- Before you dispose of a computer, delete all the personal information it stored. Deleting files using the keyboard or mouse commands or reformatting your hard drive may not be enough because the files may stay on the computer's hard drive, where they may be retrieved easily. Use a "wipe" utility program to overwrite the entire hard drive.
What is an active duty military alert?
If you are a member of the military and away from your usual duty station, you may place an active duty alert on your credit reports to help minimize the risk of identity theft while you are deployed. Active duty alerts are in effect on your report for one year. If your deployment lasts longer, you can place another alert on your credit report.
When you place an active duty alert, you'll be removed from the credit reporting companies' marketing list for pre-screened credit card offers for two years unless you ask to go back on the list before then.
Are companies allowed to print my entire credit card number on my receipt?
Beginning December 5, 2006, companies must not print your credit or debit card expiration date or more than the last 5 digits of your card number on your electronic receipt. Some businesses must make this change sooner, depending on the way they process credit card transactions. The law will allow receipts that are hand written or mechanically imprinted to show your entire number and expiration date, even after December 4, 2006.
When should I give out my Social Security number?
Your employer and financial institutions will need your Social Security number for wage and tax reporting purposes. Other businesses may ask you for your Social Security number to do a credit check if you are applying for a loan, renting an apartment, or signing up for utilities. Sometimes, however, they simply want your Social Security number for general record keeping. If someone asks for your Social Security number, ask:
- Why do you need my Social Security number?
- How will my Social Security number be used?
- How do you protect my Social Security number from being stolen?
- What will happen if I don't give you my Social Security number?
If you don't provide your Social Security number, some businesses may not provide you with the service or benefit you want. Getting satisfactory answers to these questions will help you decide whether you want to share your Social Security number with the business. The decision to share is yours.
Should I buy identity theft insurance?
Some companies offer insurance or similar products that claim to give you protection against the costs associated with resolving an identity theft case. Be aware that most creditors will only deal with you to resolve problems, so the insurance company in most cases will not be able to reduce that burden. As with any product or service, make sure you understand what you're getting before you buy. If you decide to buy an identity theft insurance product, check out the company with your local Better Business Bureau, consumer protection agency and the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office, to see if they have any complaints on file.
If you believe that your identity has been stolen:
Contact the fraud department of one of the following 3 credit reporting agencies
- Equifax: 1-800-525-6285; www.equifax.com ; P.O. Box 740241, Atlanta, GA 30374-0241
- Experian: 1-888-EXPERIAN (397-3742); www.experian.com ; P.O. Box 9532, Allen, TX 75013
- TransUnion: 1-800-680-7289; www.transunion.com ; Fraud Victim Assistance Division, P.O. Box 6790, Fullerton, CA 92834-6790
and ask them to put a FRAUD ALERT on your credit report. The fraud alert tells creditors to contact you before opening any new accounts or making any changes to your existing accounts. You only need to contact one of the three companies to place an alert. The company you call is required to contact the other two, which will place an alert on their versions of your report, too. Once you place the fraud alert in your file, you're entitled to order free copies of your credit reports, and, if you ask, only the last four digits of your Social Security number will appear on your credit reports.
- Close the accounts that you know or believe have been tampered with or opened fraudulently.
- File a report with your local police or the police in the community where the identity theft took place. Get a copy of the report or at the very least, the number of the report, to submit to your creditors and others that may require proof of the crime.