Identity Theft FAQ

Prevent fraud by learning more about identity theft.

What can I do to protect my identity from theft?

Minimizing the disaster of identity theft depends primarily on your vigilance in guarding your privacy. You've got to guard your personal information diligently. Here are some tips for keeping your private information secure:

  • Never carry your Social Security card in your wallet.
  • Don't have your Social Security number or your driver's license number preprinted on your checks.
  • Use your initials (instead of your first name) and last name on your checks. If some one takes your checks, they will not know if you sign your checks with just your initials or your full name, but your bank will know.
  • If you have a P.O. Box or work address, put that address on your checks instead of your home address. Put your work phone number on your checks instead of your home phone number.
  • When writing a check to a credit card account, do not put the complete account number on the "For" line -- just use the last four numbers.
  • Install a locking mailbox or a mail slot that goes directly into your house. Send your mail, especially payments, directly from the post office (don't put it in the mailbox for the postal carrier to pick up).
  • Order your credit report every year. Promptly respond to any inaccurate information.
  • Change your passwords and PINs regularly. Don't use obvious codes such as birthdays or the name of your spouse, child, or pet. Memorize passwords and PINs and shred any piece of paper on which they are written.
  • Diligently review credit card statements, phone, and utility bills. Call if you don't recognize a charge or phone call.
  • Always take your credit card receipts when shopping, and never throw them away in public.
  • Tear up or shred any offers of preapproved credit cards you don't intend to use and beware of offers from companies you don't recognize. It's easy to create an official-looking and completely phony credit application offering you preapproved credit if you provide your Social Security number, mother's maiden name (for supposed security reasons), and a signature.
  • Don't give personal information over the phone unless absolutely necessary, and don't ever give it unless you initiated the phone call. If someone calls who says they are calling from your bank or credit company or the IRS, ask for a number to call them back -- and then make sure it's really an official number.
  • Beware of anyone asking for your Social Security number. If they refuse to complete a transaction without it, consider taking your business elsewhere.
  • Pick up your new checks from the bank instead of having them sent to your home.
  • Don't put personal information, such as your birthdate, on a computer home page, personal computer profile, or social media website. Never provide personal or financial information unless the site is secure (for example, look for a security symbol such as an unbroken padlock in the corner of the screen and a Web browser that starts with “https ” rather than simply “http. ” Right-click the padlock to make sure it ’s up to date.)
  • If you find your personal information posted somewhere on the Internet, demand that it be removed.
  • Don't reply to pop-up or spam messages on your computer, and be cautious about opening attachments and downloads.
  • Beware of email messages from friends in supposed distress, who need you to wire them money overseas. This is a regular scam.

For more tips, see Nolo's article Preventing Identity Theft.

What are the chances my identity will be stolen and what can the thief do with my personal information?

Identity theft is a growing national epidemic. The 2011 report on identity theft by Javelin Strategy & Research estimated that in 2010 approximately 8.1 million U.S. adults were victims of identity theft, costing consumers a whopping total of $631 billion nationwide.

An identity thief can cash a check, obtain a loan, open credit accounts and charge them to the max, rent an apartment, buy a car, purchase a cell phone and talk to someone all day, and, worse, commit a serious crime -- all in your name.

Are there any laws that specifically prohibit identity theft?

Yes. In 1998, Congress passed the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act (18 U.S.C. § 1028). The Act makes the use of another person's identification with the intent to commit any unlawful activity a federal felony. Federal agencies -- including the U.S. Secret Service, the FBI, and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service -- investigate suspected violations of the Act. The U.S. Department of Justice handles prosecutions. Federal law enforcement agencies usually do not investigate individual cases unless the dollar amount is high or the victim is one of many people victimized by the same perpetrator or fraud ring.

More Information About Identity Theft

The federal government maintains a central website devoted to identity theft: www.ftc.gov/idtheft. This site lists all federal and state laws relating to identity theft, discusses pending cases, and alerts consumers about identity scams. It also contains useful links for more information.

The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse maintains an excellent website with reports on a variety of privacy related issues, including identity theft, at www.privacyrights.org.

You can also access a wealth of information about identity theft at www.identitytheft.org.

The State of California's Office of Privacy Protection (www.privacy.ca.gov) has California-specific information.

To learn more about how to limit the vulnerability of your personal information in any risky situation, read Stopping Identity Theft: 10 Easy Steps to Security, by Scott Mitic (Nolo).

What should I do if I discover that my identity has been stolen?

As soon as you are aware of the problem, do the following:

Fill out an Identity Theft Victim's Affidavit and Complaint. The Federal Trade Commission has an official identity theft form that you can use to alert or provide information to law enforcement and different companies, including the major credit bureaus, your credit card companies, your banks, and so on. You can fill out and submit or download the form at www.ftc.gov/idtheft. Make plenty of copies for yourself.

Contact the police. File a police report and keep several copies. You may need to send copies to credit bureaus, creditors, collectors, banks, and so on.

Cancel your credit cards, ATM cards, and phone cards. Notify your bank of the problem and close all existing bank accounts.

Call the credit bureaus. Ask the credit bureaus to issue a fraud alert and attach a statement to your report. Also, be sure to get copies of your credit report from each of the credit bureaus. You can ask that the reports be free-of-charge because you believe they contain inaccurate information due to fraud. (For information on ordering credit reports, see Nolo's article How to Clean Up Your Credit Report.)

Report stolen checks. Contact your bank and one or more of the major check verification companies -- request that they notify all retailers who use their databases not to accept your checks. There are many check verification companies. A few include:

Request fraud alerts from one of the three nationwide credit reporting agencies. Start with an initial fraud alert, which you can do any time. This states that you do not authorize an additional card for an existing account, an increase in the credit limit of an existing account, or new credit (other than an extension of credit on an existing credit card account). The agency receiving the alert must notify the other two agencies, and all three must place an initial alert in your file for 90 days. (Note: Because the initial alert requires creditors to take reasonable measures to confirm your identity, the alert may delay your ability to get credit.) Follow that up with a request for an extended fraud alert, which lasts seven years -- you can do this only when you've actually filed your identity theft report.

Review your Social Security earnings statement. Look for evidence that your Social Security number has been used fraudulently. Get a copy of your Social Security Earnings and Benefit Statement and look for earnings for jobs you've never had.

If someone is using your driver's license number fraudulently, obtain a new number. You should be prepared to show proof of theft and damage.

Notify the post office if you suspect the thief filed a phony change of address form. Fill out a “False Change of Address Complaint, ” available from the U.S. Postal Inspection Service at https://postalinspectors.uspis.gov/forms/fcoa.aspx.

Take control. Most important, you need to take control of the situation and not waste time waiting for someone else to step up and help you. Vigilance is essential. Do not pay bills that you are not responsible for. Be persistent with police, credit bureaus, credit card companies, and banks. Continue to call and write letters. Keep track of your efforts to stop the theft and reverse the damage.

For more information, see Nolo's article What To Do If Your Identity Is Stolen.

How can my identity be stolen?

Someone could steal your identity very easily by:

  • stealing your wallet
  • filling out a change of address form for you and collecting your mail
  • snatching your unshredded pre-approved credit slips from the trash
  • ordering unauthorized credit reports on you by posing as a potential employer or landlord
  • looking over your shoulder at phones and ATMs to gather PINs (sometimes with binoculars or listening devices)
  • using phony telemarketing schemes to con you into giving your personal data
  • phishing -- that is, attempting to get you to provide your personal or financial information by responding to Internet pop ups or spam
  • getting personal information from you by emailing bogus job offers and requesting that you provide certain information
  • illegally tapping a computer at a business to which you have provided information or by which you have been granted credit (this is often done by dishonest or disgruntled employees), or
  • gathering sensitive information and using it as a way to extract revenge (this is usually done by a former friend, lover, roommate, or coworker -- and it's more common than most people realize).

To learn how to protect yourself against identity theft, see Nolo's article Preventing Identity Theft.

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