Protecting your privacy, identity and financial information online is critically important in today’s Internet economy. According to CNN Money, another person becomes a victim of identity fraud in the U.S. every two seconds. Last year, 13.1 million Americans were victims of identity theft. I have no plans on joining this group, which is what inspired us to create our latest Zing blog guide – Identity 101.
Identity 101 is a complete guide to protecting your identity. As the intro to the guide reads, “You’ll lean the importance of protecting your identity and how identity theft can affect your finances. If you’re looking for the tools you need to avoid identity theft or how to stop thieves in their tracks so you can achieve your financial goals, you’re in the right place.” That pretty much sums it up.
What is Identity Theft?
Simply put, “identity theft” is the use of a person’s identity to commit fraud. More specifically, it’s a criminal act when someone uses your personal information to commit fraud and achieve financial gain, while avoiding being caught.
Thieves can use your information to:
- Obtain false identification (such as driver’s licenses or passports)
- Accumulate unauthorized charges to your credit cards or withdraw from your bank accounts
- Obtain new accounts or loans in your name
- Commit tax fraud
Thieves can gain access to your Social Security number, credit card numbers and other personally identifying information in any number of ways. They may snatch your wallet or purse, steal your mail or trick you into giving your information away. Adults are not the only targets. Children are also becoming victims of identity theft because thieves are using their Social Security numbers for profit. The young victims may not even find out until years later when they try to apply for a credit card or a student loan!
If you take certain precautions to protect your identity, you can avoid being a victim and save yourself countless hours of stress, worry and more importantly, money.
As identity theft grows, so do the number of stories reported in the news, making the general public more and more aware of this crime. Given the serious nature of the crime, law enforcement officials continue to work hard with the help of victims to stop identity theft and catch the perpetrators. Several government agencies, most notably the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), are good contacts for reporting cases of identity theft or fraud so you can start repairing your identity. Go to FTC.gov and click on the “Contact” link for phone numbers and email addresses of FTC departments that can help.
A Great Resource: The Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC)
The ITRC is a nationally respected nonprofit organization dedicated to the understanding and prevention of identity theft. For more information on the topics listed below, check out IDTheftCenter.org.
- Computer safeguarding
- Online safety
- Prevention tips
- ID theft tests
- Victim solutions
- Consumer alerts
Learning How Your Identity Gets Stolen
You probably don’t realize it, but your personal information exists in many places you might not expect. This is because many people need access to it when you do business – your doctor, your accountant, your bank and Internet retailers, for example. The more places your information exists, the more chances there are that it can be compromised.
Now, that’s not to say you can’t do business with your doctor or bank, or shop online without putting your finances at risk. There are several ways to do business safely. Read on for the know-how you need.
- According to the Better Business Bureau (BBB), the most common way for a thief to steal your identity is to steal your wallet or purse. They get your credit card, driver’s license, checkbook and other forms of identification, such as Social Security cards or health insurance cards (which may also contain Social Security numbers).
- Your bank card number could be stolen when you use the ATM, even if your card is still in your possession. “Skimming” occurs when a thief illegally installs a device into an ATM that records your card number without your knowledge. The thief can then use the number to create a duplicate ATM card and clean out your account.
- Thieves can steal your mail right from your mailbox or find papers containing your information from trash bins on your front lawn or from a dumpster at a company where you’ve done business.
- When you do business, your personal records or documents may be stolen by unethical employees of those companies. It’s not unheard of for someone to go into the hospital only to have the information in their hospital records stolen and used to commit fraud or theft.
- Documents may also be falsified or forged in order to commit fraud. Client information can easily be compromised when an employee loses a laptop or a hacker invades company computer systems.
- Two additional methods used to collect people’s personal information are called “phishing” and “pretexting.” Victims are deceived or conned into giving their personal information away. The term “phishing” derives from the word “fishing.” It’s the act of tricking people into giving away their personal information online – the criminal is “fishing” for information from a user. Phishers send out an email that looks like it comes from a legitimate business, though it’s actually fake. You’re asked to enter your account and password information or are directed to a fake website that looks legitimate and are asked for private information.“Pretexting” is similar to phishing, only it’s done over the phone. For example, people may call you pretending to be from survey firms or credit card companies. If they can get your financial information, they will then call your financial institution posing as you or someone authorized to access your account. They can then get more information about you (such as your Social Security number or other account numbers), and commit other fraud in your name.
- One of the worst forms of identity theft is mortgage fraud – criminals use a phony deed to claim ownership of your home and sell it to another person. The person who buys it gets a mortgage and walks away with perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars while you as the homeowner are left out in the cold. You’d only find out about it when the lender comes to collect the money owed. Unfortunately, the burden is on the victim to prove that he or she actually owns the house, and it can be costly.
According to the Javelin 2014 Identity Fraud Survey Report:
- In 2013, 13.1 million people were victims of identity theft – the second-highest level on record.
- The average time to resolve identity theft in 2011 was 33 hours at the average cost of $631.
- Stolen wallets, checkbooks and credit cards are thieves’ primary sources of personal information.
When Your Hard Work Pays … Someone Else:
How Thieves Use Your Information
- Your personal information can be used by identity thieves to make a lot of money off of you. For starters, they can change your billing address on your credit card accounts in order to make fraudulent charges – and you wouldn’t find out until you realize you haven’t received your bills on time.
- Thieves might open up accounts in your name for new credit cards, a new phone or a new bank account. They might even apply for a home or car loan.
- Illegal or unregistered immigrants may use your Social Security number to get legal documentation for employment in the U.S.
- Your information might be used to file fraudulent tax returns to avoid paying taxes or to file bankruptcy to avoid paying debts criminals have racked up in your name.
- They may create false identifications such as passports or driver’s licenses.
- An identity thief may give your name to police if he or she is arrested. When the thief doesn’t show up for the court date, the search warrant would have your name on it, allowing the thief to elude authorities.
Don’t Let Cheaters Win: Notes On How to Avoid Becoming a Victim
We mentioned earlier that a good majority of identity theft and fraud is preventable. There are several things you can and should do to prevent becoming a victim. If you follow these tips, you’ll reduce your chances of becoming a victim of identity theft and fraud.
Monitor Your Credit Report
One of the most important things you can do is to monitor your credit report regularly so that you can look for errors and discrepancies, which could indicate that you may have become a casualty of identity theft.
By federal law, you are allowed to receive one free copy of your credit report every 12 months.
You may also buy a copy of your report from each of the three credit reporting bureaus, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Contact information for each bureau is also listed in the Contacts at a Glance section of this guide. If you do find errors in your report, you’ll need to correct them. Contact the credit reporting bureau on whose report the error appears, as well as the company that is sending the incorrect information to the credit reporting bureau. It may be a simple clerical error, or it may need to be formally disputed. Either way, it’s a smart action to take so that it doesn’t appear that you’re less credit worthy than you really are. You may even end up improving your credit score by doing so!
Don’t Forget to Opt Out
Everyone can understand what it’s like to receive junk mail in their mailboxes. You may just tear it up and toss it in the trash without even opening it, but did you know that even unsolicited mail can contain your personally identifying information? Any time you apply for credit, an auto loan or a mortgage, your information could be sold by the three major credit reporting bureaus to any mass marketer willing to pay for it. Once they have your information, you could start receiving numerous offers for credit in the mail. So when it arrives in your mailbox, don’t just tear it up and throw it away. Thieves digging through your trash can just pull it out and easily re-assemble the pieces.
It’s better to get a shredding machine and thoroughly shred this kind of mail. One of the best ways to prevent identity theft is to contact the three credit reporting bureaus directly and have your name removed from their lists. You can do this by calling (888) 5-OPTOUT (567-8688), or by visiting them at OptOutPrescreen.com. You can either choose to have your name and address removed from future lists for years, or permanently. If you choose to be removed from future lists permanently, you’ll be required to fill out and return a Notice of Election to Opt Out form. To remove your name from future direct marketing phone and mail lists, you can contact the Direct Marketing Association by writing to:
Mail Preference Service
Direct Marketing Association
P.O. Box 1559
Carmel, NY 10512
Telephone Preference Service
Direct Marketing Association
P.O. Box 1559
Carmel, NY 10512
Lock It Up
Be aware that even if you leave valuables in your home with the doors and windows locked up, they can still be stolen. Believe it or not, the BBB reports that nearly half of all identity fraud crimes were committed by friends, family members or in-home employees. So, leaving your checkbook or passport in an unlocked drawer or hidden in a cookie jar is not enough. Someone who has access to your home and is determined to steal your valuables and personal information will probably find it. Anything that contains sensitive information such as credit cards, passwords, Social Security numbers or any other important documents like your house deed, etc. should be locked up in a safe or heavy-duty filing cabinet (preferably one that is fireproof) to which only you have the combination or key.
This goes for valuables you bring to work as well. Too many people leave their wallets or purses sitting right on top of their desks and assume their co-workers would never steal from them. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Plus, there are maintenance workers, customers and outsiders who visit your office. Don’t take the chance – it’s not worth the price you’d pay. Leave your valuables and files locked up at work at all times.
Safeguard Your Computer
Your computers can be an easy avenue for hackers and criminals to obtain your personal information. There are several ways you can protect that information by protecting your computer and being careful about what you do online.
When you connect your computer to the Internet, you should always use a firewall program. A firewall program is much like a security door for which only certain authorized people have the key or entry code. It filters out unauthorized entries to your computer and keeps track of attempted break-ins. It’s been said that it can take as little as 12 minutes before a computer without a firewall gets hacked. Hackers could search your personal files for account numbers or other information that can be used against you. They can also use your computer to launch attacks on other computers for which you could be blamed. Having your computer connected directly to the Internet and not using a firewall program is just like keeping all your valuables at home and leaving the front door wide open when you live in an extremely high-crime area. It’s only a matter of time before someone walks right in and robs you. Firewall hardware and software can be found online or at any computer store.
Spyware is a program or software that can be installed on your computer without your knowledge or permission. It’s designed to spy on your Internet usage habits, gathering information about what you do online and sending that information to a third party. It can deliver spam, cause your computer to display unwanted advertising, change system settings and seriously slow down your computer. To remove spyware, you can download “Spybot Search & Destroy” by going to Safer-Networking.org/en/Download. “Ad-Aware SE*” removes adware, which tracks your buying habits online. Ad-Aware SE is available at LavasoftUSA.com. *Quicken Loans does not endorse either product and makes no promises as to the performance of the software programs.
If you have an email address, you know what spam is – you’ve probably received many spam messages already. It’s unsolicited junk email advertising. Your email address can be harvested from marketing distribution lists, web pages, discussion boards, chat rooms and other similar places online.
If you receive spam email, never reply to it – even if you’re trying to remove yourself from their mailing lists. Any reply at all lets spammers know they have a legitimate email address and only encourages them to send more. Whenever you buy anything online, it’s safer to use a “side” email address – one that’s not your work or primary personal email account. Free email accounts such as Yahoo! Mail or Gmail from Google have spam filters and while they may not eliminate spam altogether, they can help reduce the amount of spam you receive.
Doing Business Online
When you type in the address of a site you want to do business with, make sure you type it into your browser carefully so as not to misspell the address. Scam artists are notorious for buying Internet addresses that are similar to the site you want to go to, but are, in fact, spelling variations of the actual address. If you end up on the wrong site, what you see might look like the right one, but you’ll be fooled into giving out your personal information to the wrong person.
Other Computer Security Measures
If you have a laptop computer, you should never keep personal or sensitive information on it unless absolutely necessary. If you must, then use the password protection feature on sensitive files to keep other people from accessing them in case your laptop gets lost or stolen. Alternatively, you can back up your files on portable USB mass storage devices, or flash drives. Flash drives are very small and very portable. They can also hold up to 16GB of memory—a perfect way to back up your files should your computer ever crash or get stolen. Also, never allow your computer or browser to save your username and password information. Again, if your computer is stolen or someone else has access to it, they can gain access to sites that hold your personal banking or financial information. Type in your username and password each time you log in, and log out each time you leave. As an added safety precaution, close your browser window – someone else may be able to just hit the “back” button and gain access to your accounts online. When you dispose of your computer, be sure to erase the hard drive and make sure that you’re deleting each and every piece of information about yourself. You can even go as far as drilling holes through the hard drive inside your computer to make it unusable.
Take All Precautions
You can still take even more precautions to safeguard your sensitive information. For instance, be careful who you give your information to – don’t let strangers or new acquaintances know where you live, how much you make or even that you just bought a new big screen TV. You could tip o the wrong person who may be tempted to break into your home. Be careful with people you meet online as well. They may seem charming and trustworthy, but the advantage to meeting people online is anonymity – anyone can fake who they really are to manipulate and deceive people they meet.
When you go to the doctor’s o ice or do business with any company that requires your personal information, ask about their security procedures and be sure you trust who you’re dealing with. Even at your workplace, make sure you know your company’s security policy and are aware of how your personnel files are being protected. Be aware that it’s not always necessary for places like doctors’ offices or hospitals to use your Social Security number. Ask if there’s another numbering system they can use to identify you. If you’re told that it’s their company policy to use your Social Security number, ask to talk to a manager. He or she may be more amenable to fulfilling your request if interested enough in getting your business.
To protect your Social Security number even further, ask that only the last four digits of your Social Security number appear on your credit reports. Doing this reduces the number of places it appears which, in turn, reduces the chances of it falling into the wrong hands. At home, be sure to remove delivered mail from your mailbox promptly to reduce the chances of someone stealing it from you. Any outgoing mail should be deposited in a post o ice collection box. If you order new checks, ask to pick them up at the bank instead of having them delivered by mail. Even better than that, sign up for an online bill paying service as well as online banking and online statements for all your accounts. This will reduce or even eliminate the paper mail you receive and decrease your chances of having your identity hijacked. Prevent your accounts – bank, credit cards, phone, etc. – from being compromised by putting passwords on them. That way, no one but you will have access to them and crooks won’t be able to pose as you to make changes to your account in their favor. Finally, be careful what you carry in your wallet. Carry only what’s necessary and nothing that isn’t – your Social Security card, credit cards you don’t use, or identification you don’t need. Those should be locked up in your safe.
What to Do if You are a Victim of Identity Theft
If your sensitive information has already been lost or stolen and you’ve become a victim of identity theft or fraud, you can take steps to minimize the blow. Don’t worry, you can take this exam “open book!”
- As soon as you’ve realized you’ve fallen victim to identity theft, immediately close all the accounts that have been affected or opened fraudulently. Call the credit card companies you have accounts with to cancel your cards and get replacements. If your identification has been lost or stolen, get replacements of those as well. According to the Fair Credit Billing Act, you are only liable for $50 per card for fraudulent charges that have been made on your credit card accounts. This includes charges and electronic withdrawals made using your ATM or debit card, as long as you report the loss within two days of finding out you’ve been victimized.When you open new accounts, place passwords on them – make sure not to use easily guessed passwords such as your birth date, the last four digits of your Social Security number or your mother’s maiden name. Don’t forget to sign up for online bill-pay services, online statements and online banking.
- Next, file a report with your local police. Having a written police report of the crime will give your case a lot more weight when trying to resolve your accounts with creditors. It will act as proof that you were a victim of fraudulent activity and did not incur certain debts. You should also file a report with the FTC. The more detail you provide to them about the crime, the better able they and other law enforcement officials will be to catch and stop other identity thieves. As you report your crime and work to resolve your accounts, be sure to document everything about the crime – make copies of all correspondences and take notes of all conversations you have with anyone you speak with in regards to your case – law enforcement, creditors, etc. You’ll need to give copies of all supporting documents, including a copy of your police report in your report to the FTC. The more accurate your records, the faster you’ll be able to resolve your case. File a report with the proper agency or agencies, depending on what type of fraud occurred. For instance, if your Social Security number has been stolen or used fraudulently, file a report with the Social Security Agency. If your mail has been fraudulently tampered with, contact the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and report it to them. If someone has filed for bankruptcy under your name, contact the U.S. Department of Justice. A list of agencies is listed in the Contacts at a Glance section at the end of this guide.
- Place a fraud alert on your credit report to prevent any further fraudulent activity from being committed in your name. You can place an initial fraud alert on your credit report for 90 days, or you can put an extended alert that stays on your report for seven years. Your name will be removed from the marketing lists of the three credit bureaus for five years and any company issuing credit must verify your identity. You only need to contact one of the three credit reporting bureaus to have a fraud alert placed on your credit report. Once you’ve placed an alert on one report, the reporting bureau you contacted is required to contact the other two to place alerts on their versions of your credit report. While you’re at it, ask that only the last four digits of your Social Security number appear on your report, rather than the entire number. If you haven’t opted out from being on the three reporting bureaus’ marketing lists that get sold, at least those who buy your information will not see your Social Security number. After you place a fraud alert on your credit report, you’re entitled to receive free copies of your report. Make sure you examine them carefully and look for accounts you didn’t open or debts you did not incur. Any fraudulent debts or accounts should be disputed with the companies through which the accounts were created. Contact the fraud department of those creditors and follow up in writing. You may need to provide copies of supporting documents. Again, document all conversations and keep accurate records. Any letters should be sent by certified mail with a return receipt requested to be sure they receive them. Once you’ve resolved your case with the creditor company, ask for a letter stating it’s been resolved. If you need to dispute what’s been reported to the credit bureaus, having proof that the creditor company has resolved your case will help you do so.
If there are collection agencies or debt agencies calling you and asking you to pay the debts a criminal has incurred in your name, write each of them a letter and ask them to stop contacting you. They’re not allowed to harass you, threaten you or otherwise intimidate you. Send your letter by certified mail with a return receipt requested. Debt collection agencies are required by law to stop contacting you, though they may contact you once more just to notify you that they will stop contacting you.
Cheaters Never Win
Under the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act, identity theft is a federal crime. It happens when someone knowingly uses another person’s identity for the purpose of personal financial benefit while deceiving and avoiding law enforcement officials. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) and the Social Security Administration (SSA) are among the federal law enforcement agencies that investigate violations of the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act. The Contacts at a Glance section of this guide lists the agencies you should contact if you’ve been a victim of identity theft.
Your personally identifying information is very valuable to both marketers and thieves. At any time, that sensitive information could be, and most likely is, floating around for many people to buy and see. But identity theft, for the most part, can be prevented if you’re careful about how you manage your information and whom you trust with it.
You can also view and print a PDF version of Identity 101. The important thing is that you learn some new and useful information. That’s what this is all about.
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