Preventing ID Theft

Identity theft and identity fraud are terms used to refer to all types of crime in which someone wrongfully obtains and uses another person's personal data in some way that involves fraud or deception, typically for economic gain.

Unlike your fingerprints, which are unique to you and cannot be given to someone else for their use, your personal data - especially your Social Security number, your bank account or credit card number, your telephone calling card number, and other valuable identifying data - can be used, if they fall into the wrong hands, to personally profit at your expense. In the United States and Canada, for example, many people have reported that unauthorized persons have taken funds out of their bank or financial accounts, or, in the worst cases, taken over their identities altogether, running up vast debts and committing crimes while using the victim's names. In many cases, a victim's losses may include not only out-of-pocket financial losses, but substantial additional financial costs associated with trying to restore his reputation in the community and correcting erroneous information for which the criminal is responsible.

Identity thieves only need to know your Social Security number, name, and address to wreck your good credit. Using easily accessible public records, they can learn your place of employment, date of birth, and mother's maiden name. They can open a credit card account and immediately charge up to the limit with no intention of paying.

Some get this information the old fashioned way: They steal your purse or wallet. Others steal official looking mail from your mailbox. Some use change-of-address cards from the Post Office to have your mail forwarded to another address typically a vacant building. They may steal garbage bags or "dumpster dive" for trash with revealing information. Fellow employees may access information from your personnel file. Bank employees have collected data from their computer databases. Others collect data from public records.

Here are steps to take to protect yourself from identity theft.

Preventing identity theft with credit cards

Credit cards can be obtained through banks and credit unions as well as chain stores. Many offers for "pre-approved" credit cards come in the mail.

Getting a credit card issued by department stores is simple. Only two forms of ID are required: a driver's license with a picture ID and a second identification, like another credit card or your Social Security card.

What steps should you take to protect your identity with credit cards?

  • Ask stores at which you are applying for credit how they safeguard credit applications. Ensure that they are treated as secure documents.
  • Ask businesses how they store and dispose of credit card transaction skips. Ensure that proper safeguards are in place to treat these documents securely.
  • Never give credit card numbers or other personal information over the phone unless you initiate the call. Even if you initiate the call, ensure that called party is not using a cellular or other mobile phone.
  • Sign credit cards in permanent ink as soon as you obtain them.
  • Carry only the credit cards needed for the current trip. Most people carry all their credit cards with them at all times.
  • Tear up or shred all "pre-approved" credit card offers before throwing them away. Trash bags are not secure; nor are dumps. Thieves can retrieve these documents and open credit accounts with new addresses.
  • Keep a list or photocopy of all credit accounts, along with expiration dates and phone numbers to call in case of theft. Keep this list in a secure spot at home.
  • When you purchase items with credit, always take your credit card receipts with you. Never toss them in a waste basket.
  • Carefully examine each monthly credit card statement to ensure that every charge accurately matches credit card receipts.
  • Do not write credit card numbers on checks.
  • Do not sign a blank charge slip. Draw a line through all areas for recording charges above the total.
  • If you have applied for a new credit card and it does not arrive, contact the issuer.
  • Avoid giving credit card numbers over the phone if you are in a public place. Even at work, others may overhear and use the information.
  • Receive your credit card statements at a Post Office Box rather than at home (unless you have a lock type mailbox)


Identity theft: Protect your Social Security Number

Your Social Security number is the main key to your credit safety. Anyone with your Social Security number (SSN) can easily create a credit nightmare that will take years to resolve. What steps should you take to protect your Social Security number?

  • Never carry documents containing your Social Security number. This includes your Social Security card as well as many insurance cards.
  • Never give your Social Security number to anyone by telephone, even if you make the call.
  • Avoid having your Social Security number used for IDs at work. Request a different number if possible.
  • Avoid using your Social Security number as your drivers license number. Request that your Department of Motor Vehicles use an alternative number; most states will provide one.
  • Do not pre-print or write your Social Security number on your checks.
  • Ensure that those requesting your Social Security number are doing so for legitimate reasons, not merely bureaucratic reasons.
  • Request a copy of your Social Security Personal Earnings and Benefit Estimate Statement at least every three years to make certain the information in the file is correct. Contact the Social Security Administration at (800) 772-1213 to learn how to order this free report.


Prevent Identity Theft in Financial Transactions

Your financial institution is a doorway to a major portion of your financial life. Your accounts needs to be secure. What steps can you take to secure financial information through your credit union?

  • Ask your credit union to add additional security protection to your account. Most will allow the use of a special code or password to carry out financial transactions, especially withdrawals.
  • Shield your hand when entering your ATM password. Be aware of what is around you when approaching an ATM. Someone may be looking over your shoulder with binoculars or a telephoto lens on a video camera.
  • Memorize your ATM password so it is not written down.
  • Do not pre-print or write your drivers license number on your checks.
  • Do not place bill payments in your mailbox for pickup by postal carriers. Stolen checks can be altered and cashed by an impostor. Mail bills and other personal items at the post office.


Prevent Identity Theft in Mail and at the Post Office
  • Do not sign up for unfamiliar contests or sweepstakes. Information you provide could be sold and reproduced hundreds of times.
  • Install a lockable mailbox at your home so thieves cannot easily take your mail.
  • Remove your name from commercial marketing databases by writing to Direct Marketing Association's Mail Preference Service (P.O. Box 9008, Farmingdale, NY 11735) and Telephone Preference Service (P.O. Box 9015, Farmingdale, NY 11735).
  • If your mail suddenly stops, check with the Post Office. Someone may have filed a change of address form.
  • Stop credit bureaus from selling your name (header information). This will greatly reduce the number of pre-qualified credit card offers you receive in the mail. Call the toll-free telephone number used by all three credit bureaus and take advantage of their "opt-out" service. One number, (888) 5OPTOUT, or (888) 567-8688, reaches all three bureaus.
  • Write to National Demographics and Lifestyles and ask to be deleted from its mailing list: National Demographics & Lifestyles, List Order Department, 1621 18th Street, Suite 300, Denver, CO 80202. (800) 525-3533.


Credit Reports and other Documents
  • Shred all documents containing personal information before disposing of them. This includes utility bills, doctor bills, bank statements, investment reports, and credit card receipts.
  • Never post personal information on the Internet.
  • Review your credit report annually.
  • Add a fraud alert to your credit files that alerts the three major credit bureaus to inform credit givers to call you for verification of any credit applications. Your letters should contain your name, address, Social Security number, and spouse's name. Fraud alerts normally remain active for seven years.


Identity Theft Summary

Always be wary of giving out any of the following information that can be used to establish your identity:

  • Social Security number
  • Current and previous address
  • Financial institution or investment account numbers
  • Credit card numbers
  • Date of birth
  • Driver's license number
  • Mother's maiden name (frequently used to retrieve forgotten passwords)
  • Passwords, such as ATM pin numbers
  • Phone numbers, both daytime and home

If you have not already done so, check your credit rating today. Here is the contact information for each bureau's fraud division:

P. O. Box 740250
Atlanta, GA 30374
P. O. Box 1017
Allen, TX 75013
P. O. Box 6790
Fullerton, CA 92634

Report all suspicious contacts to the Federal Trade Commission through the Internet at, or by calling 1-877-IDTHEFT.

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