Identity Theft

Identity Theft

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Identity theft is a serious crime that cost American consumers billions of dollars and countless hours each year. It occures when someone uses your personal information without your permission to commit fraud or other crimes.
Skilled identity thieves use a variety of methods to steal your personal information, including:

(1) They rummage through trash looking for bills or other paper with your personal information on it.
(2) They steal credit/debit card numbers by using a special storage device when processing your card.
(3) They pretend to be financial institutions or companies and send spam or pop-up messages to get you to reveal your personal information.
(4) They divert your billing statements to another location by completing a "change of address" form.
(5) They steal wallets and purses; mail, including bank and credit card statements; pre-approved credit offers; and new checks or tax information. 

While you can't entirely control whether you will become a victim, there are steps you can take to minimize your risk. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the nation's consumer protection agency, encourages consumers to Deter, Detect and Defend to help cut down on identity theft.


Deter identity thieves by safe-guarding your information:
  • Shred financial documents and paperwork with personal information before you discard them.
  • Protect your Social Security number. Give it out only if absolutely necessary or ask to use another identifier.
  • Don't give out personal information via the phone, mail or the Internet unless you know who you are dealing with.
  • Don't use an obvious password like your birth date, your mother's maiden name or the last four digits of your Social Security number. Experts advise a combination of letters and numbers.
  • Keep your personal information in a secure place at home, especially if you have roommates, employ help or are having work done in your home.
  • Email is generally not encrypted so be wary of sending any sensitive information such as account numbers or other personal information in this way.
  • Never click on links sent in unsolicited emails; instead type in a web address you know. Use firewalls, anti-spyware and virus software to protect your home computer; keep them up-to-date.


Detect suspicious activity by routinely monitoring your financial accounts, billing statements and credit report. Be alert to signs that require immediate attention, such as: unexpected credit cards or account statements; denials of credit for no apparent reason; and calls or letters about purchases you did not make.
  • The law requires the major nationwide credit reporting companies - Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion - to give you a free copy of your credit report every 12 months if you ask for it.
  • Visit Free Annual Credit Report or call 1-877-322-8228, a service created by these three companies, to order your free annual credit report. You also can write: Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, GA, 30348-5281.
  • If you see accounts or addresses you don't recognize or information that is inaccurate, contact the credit reporting company and the information provider.


If you think your identity has been stolen, here's what to do:
  • Contact the fraud departments of any of the three consumer reporting companies (Equifax: 1-800-525-6285, Experian: 1-888-397-3742, TransUnion: 1-800-680-7289) to place 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.
  • Close the accounts that you know or believe have been tampered with or opened fraudulently.
  • Contact the security or fraud department of each company where an account was opened or charged without your okay.
  • Follow up in writing, with copies of supporting documents.
  • Use the ID Theft Affidavit at Federal Trade Commission Identity Theft to support your written statement.
  • Ask for verification that the disputed account has been dealt with and the fraudulent debts discharged.
  • Keep copies of documents and records of your conversations about the theft.
  • 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 who may require proof of the crime.
  • File your complaint with the FTC. The FTC maintains a database of identity theft cases used by law enforcement agencies for investigations. Filing a complaint also helps officials learn more about identity theft and the problems victims are having so that they can better assist you.
  • Online: Federal Trade Commission Identity Theft
  • By phone: 1-877-438-4338 or TTY, 1-866-653-4261
  • By mail: Identity Theft Clearinghouse, Federal Trade Commission, Washington, DC 20580

If someone you don't know wants to pay you by check but wants you to wire some of the money back, beware! It's a scam that could cost you thousands of dollars.
How do fake check scams work? There are many variations of the scam. It usually starts with someone offering to:
  • Buy something you advertised for sale;
  • Pay you to work at home;
  • Give you an "advance" on a sweepstakes you've won; or
  • Give you the first installment on the millions you'll receive for agreeing to transfer money in a foreign country to your bank account for safekeeping.
The scammers often claim to be in other countries and say it's too difficult to pay you directly, so they'll have someone in the U.S. who owes them money send you a check or money order.

The amount of the check or money order may be more than you're owed, so you're instructed to deposit it and wire the rest to the scammer or to someone else. Or you're told to wire some of the money back to pay a fee to claim your "winnings." In some cases, the scammer promises to transfer money directly to your bank account. You provide your account information for an electronic fund transfer. Instead, the crook sends your bank a phony check or money order with instructions to deposit it in your account. When you check your balance, it looks like the funds have arrived. Whatever the set-up, the result is the same - after you've wired the money, you find out that the check or money order has bounced.

How can I protect myself from fake check scams?

There is no legitimate reason for someone who is giving you money to ask you to wire money back - that's a clear sign it's a scam. If a stranger wants to pay you for something, insist on a cashiers check for the exact amount, preferably from a local bank or one with a branch in your area.

If you think someone is trying to pull a fake check scam, don't deposit it - report it! Contact the National Consumers League's National Fraud Information Center or (800) 876-7060. There are also more detailed tips about fake check scams in the telemarketing and Internet fraud section of the Web site. 
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