Identity theft is the act of taking someone’s personal information and using it to impersonate a victim, steal from bank accounts, establish phony insurance policies, open unauthorized credit cards or obtain unauthorized bank loans. In some more elaborate schemes, criminals use the stolen personal information to get a job, rent a home or take out a mortgage in the victim’s name.
Close to half of identity theft cases are the result of a lost or stolen wallet, checkbook, credit card or other physical document. But as online shopping becomes increasing popular, it can also pose an identity risk.
Victims of identity theft are often left with lower credit scores and spend months or even years getting credit records corrected. They frequently have difficulty getting credit, obtaining loans and even finding employment. Victims of identity theft fraud often travel a long and frustrating road to recovery; depending on the severity of the identity theft fraud damage, the recovery process can take anywhere from a few weeks to several years.
Most homeowners and renters policies provide coverage for theft of money or credit cards; however, the amount of coverage is limited (usually $200 in cash and $50 on credit cards). Once you have reported the loss or theft of your credit card to the issuing company, you are responsible for only $50 of unauthorized use.
Tips for Avoiding Identity Theft
- Keep the amount of personal information in your purse or wallet to the bare minimum. Avoid carrying additional credit cards, your social security card or passport unless absolutely necessary.
- Guard your credit card when making purchases. Shield your hand when using ATM machines or making long distance phone calls with phone cards. Don’t fall prey to “shoulder surfers” who may be nearby.
- Always take credit card or ATM receipts. Don’t throw them into public trash containers, leave them on the counter or put them in your shopping bag where they can easily fall out or get stolen.
- Do not give out personal information. Whether on the phone, through the mail or over the Internet, don’t give out any personal information unless you have initiated the contact or are sure you know who you are dealing with and that they have a secure line.
- Proceed with caution when shopping online. Use only authenticated websites to conduct business online. Before submitting personal or financial information through a website, check for the locked padlock image on your browser’s status bar or look for “HTTPS” (rather than HTTP) in your browser window. If you have any concerns about the authenticity of a Web page, contact the owner of the site to confirm the URL.
- Be aware of phishing and pharming scams. In these scams, criminals use fake emails and websites to impersonate legitimate organizations. Exercise caution when opening emails and instant messages from unknown sources and never give out personal, financial or password related information via email.
- Make sure you have firewall, anti-spyware and anti-virus programs installed on your computer. These programs should always be up to date.
- Monitor your accounts. Don’t rely on your credit card company or bank to alert you of suspicious activity. Carefully monitor your bank and credit card statements to make sure all transactions are accurate. If you suspect a problem, contact your credit card company or bank immediately.
- Order a copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus. A new law that took effect December 1, 2004, entitles you to one free credit report per year. Your credit report contains information on where you work and live, the credit accounts that have been opened in your name, how you pay your bills and whether you’ve been sued, arrested or filed for bankruptcy. Make sure it’s accurate and includes only those activities you’ve authorized.
- Place passwords on your credit card, bank and phone accounts. Avoid using easily available information like your mother’s maiden name, your birth date, any part of your Social Security number or phone number, or any series of consecutive numbers. If you suspect a problem with your credit card, change your password.
- Shred any documents containing personal information such as credit card numbers, bank statements, charge receipts or credit card applications, before disposing of them.