The 1990's spawned a new variety of criminals called identity thieves. Identity thieves look for valuable personal information that belongs to others. This may include bank account, credit card, and social security information. For the identity thief, a minimal amount of information can be used to establish a new identity. This allows the criminal to do such things as open bank and credit card accounts, get loans, or obtain employment.
In recent years, identity theft has become one of the fastest growing crimes in the United States. Unfortunately, it typically takes months before the victim is made aware of any wrongdoing. Usually the victim learns of the crime after he or she receives a letter from a collection agency or is turned down for a loan because of a poor credit rating. Then the victim faces numerous obstacles and must spend hours sorting through the nightmare of reclaiming his or her identity.
Individuals probably can't completely prevent identity theft from occurring, especially if someone is determined to commit the crime. However, you can minimize your risk by managing your personal information wisely. Find out how it will be used, and ask if you can choose to have it kept confidential. You should also become familiar with your billing cycles, contacting creditors if bills don't arrive on time. Outgoing mail should be deposited in a post office collection box, and mail should be removed from your home mailbox promptly after it is delivered. Prior to taking a vacation, request that the United States Postal Service do a mail hold until you are scheduled to return.
It is important to avoid using easily identified personal information as passwords or codes. Do not use the last four digits of your social security number, your phone number, or consecutive or duplicate numbers, such as 2,3,4,5 or 3333. Limit the amount of personal information you carry in your wallet to what you actually use and need.
Never give personal information on the phone, through the mail, or over the Internet unless you initiated the contact or you are confident of the identity of the individual you are dealing with. Identity thieves will pose as representatives of banks, Internet service providers, and even government agencies to get you to reveal your social security number, mother's maiden name, and other personal identifying information.
Keep items with personal information in a safe place. Thwart an identity thief who may pick through the trash or recycle bins to capture personal information by tearing, cutting, or shredding charge receipts, copies of credit applications, insurance forms, physician statements, bank statements, expired charge cards, and credit offers received in the mail. Be cautious about where you leave personal information in your home, especially if you have roommates, employ outside help, or are having service work done in your home.
Order a copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit-reporting agencies (Experian, Equifax, and Trans Union) every year. Check it for accuracy and be certain that you have authorized all credit activity listed. Reviewing your report on a regular basis can help to catch mistakes and fraud before they wreck havoc on your personal finances. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) will take complaints from those whose identities have been stolen. If you have been a victim of identity theft, you can call their Identity Theft Hotline toll-free at 1-877-IDTHEFT (1-877-438-4338). The FTC will put your information into a secure consumer fraud database and may, in appropriate cases, share it with law enforcement agencies. The FTC also has an identity theft affidavit. This is a form victims may use to alert companies when a new unauthorized account was opened in his or her name.
What happens to personal information you provide to companies, marketers, and government agencies? They may use your information just for necessary processing. Or, they may also use it to create a profile about you that will allow them to contact you about other products, services, or promotions. However, it's also possible that they may share your information with others. Consumers have been receiving more choices about how their personal information is used. For example, often you may be allowed to "opt out" of having information shared with others for promotional purposes. Rather than just tearing up and throwing out pre-screened credit card offers received in the mail, opt out of receiving them by calling 1-888-567-8688.
The Direct Marketing Association's (DMA) mail, email, and telephone preference services allow consumers to opt out of direct mail marketing, email marketing, and/or telemarketing solicitations from many national companies. The consumer's name will not be on their lists, so companies can't rent or sell the name to other companies.
To remove your email address from many national direct email lists, visit http://www.e-mps.org. If you would like to avoid unwanted phone calls from many national marketers, send your name, address, and telephone number to: DMA Telephone Preference Service, Preference Service Manager, 1120 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10036-6700. To remove your name from many national direct mail lists, write to: DMA Mail Preference Service, Preference Service Manager, 1120 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10036-6700. For more information, visit http://www.the-dma.org.