Identity Theft: a Growing Crime
Identity theft is one of the fastest growing crimes in America. When a dishonest person has your Social Security number, the thief can use it to get other personal information about you. Most of the time identity thieves use your number and your good credit to apply for more credit in your name. Then, they use the credit cards and do not pay the bills. You do not find out that someone is using your number until you are turned down for credit, or you begin to get calls from unknown creditors demanding payment for items you never bought. Someone illegally using your Social Security number and assuming your identity can cause a lot of problems.
Stealing Your Good Name
However, your Social Security number is not the only means of identity theft. 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.
E-mail "fishing expeditions" are another way. Pretending to be eBay users or businesses you have used, the crooks e-mail 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 mailbox, 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)
What can you do to protect yourself? 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 (for example, a well-known video rental chain). Ask any business why it needs your number. When customers resist, managers usually waive it.
Other Steps You Can Take
- 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.
For More Information...
The Social Security Administration's website offers more information about what to do if you have been targeted by an identity thief.
The Federal Trade Commission's Consumer Sentinel website includes information and resources for preventing and dealing with identity theft, as well as information about "phishing" scams.