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Identity Theft: Tips for Consumers

What to do if it happens to you.

Identity Theft: Tips for Consumers

“Consumers targeted by identity thieves usually do not know that
they have been victims until the hijackers fail to pay the bills or repay the
loans, and collection agencies begin dunning the consumers for payment of
accounts they didn’t even know they had.”
—The Federal Trade

The Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve has described
identity theft as “one of the fastest growing crimes in the United

What to do if it happens to you:

If you have been a victim of identity theft, the following are government and
nonprofit resources to help you:

Federal Trade Commission

Privacy Rights Clearinghouse

How to reduce your chances of becoming a future victim of identity

  1. Check financial statements promptly. Always review your
    monthly banking, brokerage, and credit-card statements for accuracy. Report
    problems immediately.
  2. Watch your credit. Order copies of your free credit report
    every year from each of the three major credit reporting agencies. You can order your free credit report at aannualcreditreport.com or calling 877-322-8228, or by filling out the Annual Credit Report Request Form and mailing it to: Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, GA. 30348-5281.
  3. Freeze your credit files. Consider placing a security freeze on your consumer credit reporting files. A powerful preventive tool, it enables you to stop the opening of new accounts which require a credit check unless you expressly authorize this checking by the entity that requests this information. See Freeze Identity Thieves Out of Consumers’ Credit Files for more information and see if your state offers you the right to get the security freeze.
  4. Be stingy with information. Never disclose your Social
    Security number, birth date, mother’s maiden name or other sensitive information unless you initiated the
    transaction. On paper documents, don’t include such data unless required to do
    so on an official application for employment, financing, or insurance. (Ask
    employers, schools, and other business to offer alternatives.) Never
    put such information on personal Web pages or résumés or
  5. Just say no. Consider “opting out” of information-sharing
    at your financial institutions. (Check your company’s financial privacy
    notice, which is mailed annually and usually posted on company Web sites, to
    find out what you can opt-out of.) Also opt out of pre-approved credit offers by calling the
    Credit Reporting Industry Pre-Screening Opt-Out Number at 888-567-8688.
  6. Travel light. Don’t carry ID that contains sensitive data
    like your Social Security number unless absolutely necessary.
  7. Lock it up. Safeguard your driver’s license and other
    government ID at all times. Lock desks, cabinets, and safes containing such
    information in your office and home.
  8. Shred and destroy. Before throwing out files containing
    Social Security numbers, account numbers, and birth dates, shred them with a
    cross-cut shredder. Destroy CDs or floppy disks containing sensitive data by
    shredding, cutting, or breaking them. Use hard-drive shredding software or
    remove and destroy your hard drive before discarding a computer. Just deleting
    files isn’t enough.
  9. Guard mail. Use a locked mailbox or slot to
    receive mail at home. Deposit mail in postal mailboxes or in the post office
    to discourage mail theft.
  10. Keep your eye on the prize. Try not to let waiters, sales
    clerks, or gas-station attendants disappear from view with your credit or
    debit card, to avoid “skimming.” Crooks can use a handheld card reader to copy
    the information from your card’s magnetic strip.
  11. Beware strange ATMs. Avoid using private or
    strange-looking automated teller machines, because they may be rigged to skim
    data off your card’s magnetic strip. Six- or seven-character PINs (personal
    identification numbers) are harder to crack than shorter ones, but you may not
    be able to use them at machines abroad.
  12. No surfing allowed. Watch out for “shoulder surfers” when
    using pay phones or public Internet access; use your free hand to shield the
    keypad. Don’t use cellphones and cordless phones to conduct sensitive financial or medical
    business, because eavesdroppers on other phones and those using eavesdropping
    equipment may be able to overhear your conversations.
  13. Build a wall. Install firewalls and virus-detection
    software on your home computers to discourage hackers.
  14. Log off. Quit your browser and log off after using public
    Internet-access computers in libraries, Internet cafes, and the like. Don’t
    pay bills, bank, or conduct other financial transactions on public computers.
    If you have a high-speed Internet connection at home, unplug the computer’s
    cable or phone line when you are not using it to discourage hackers.
  15. Deal only with reputable Web sites. Check privacy and
    security policies of Web sites before making purchases, trading stocks, or
    banking online. A professional-looking Web site is no guarantee of security.
    Don’t respond to unsolicited e-mail requests for personal information.
  16. Get complicated. Consider password-protecting all your bank and
    brokerage accounts. Create passwords at least eight characters long.
  17. Check your workplace. Ask how your employer safeguards employee
    records. Request that Social Security numbers not be used as employee ID

Source: Adapted from “Identity Theft: What you can do.”
Consumers Reports. March 2007

For a complete list of actions to take
to reduce your chances of becoming a victim of identity theft:

More You Can Do To Protect Your Personal Information

See also Financial
Privacy Now
for Consumers Union’s campaign on protecting your personal