Identity theft is one of the most common crimes in the country, affecting approximately 9-10 million Americans each year. But federal efforts to combat the problem have lagged. In fact, a recent study from the Justice Department Inspector General indicates that fighting identity theft is no longer a priority for the FBI. That means, more than ever, consumers need to take steps to protect themselves.
What is your identity?
Any combination of the following information can provide enough for identity theft to occur:
- Phone Number
- E-mail Address
- Social Security Number
- Mother's Maiden Name
- ATM PIN
- Date of Birth
Safeguarding Your Information
Your best defense against identity theft is safeguarding the information that can be used to steal your identity. Following are key steps to protecting that information.
- Guard your social security number. Never carry your Social Security card with you, and don't use your Social Security number as a PIN or password if you can avoid it.
- Check your wallet and limit the number of identification cards you carry. Never carry your birth certificate or passport, unless necessary. Many medical cards contain your Social Security number; if you don't need it, don't carry it with you. Carry only the credit cards you plan to use.
- Shred, shred, shred. Shred bills, receipts, credit card offers and any other items that contain personal or financial information, including bank statements.
- Protect your mail. If you're going to be out of town, have the post office hold your mail or ask someone to pick it up. Place outgoing mail in an official mailbox, not your own.
- Never give out your personal information. Legitimate companies or agencies don't call or e-mail asking for personal information like account, credit card or Social Security numbers. Never give out personal information unless you initiated the contact.
- Sign up for your state's no call list. Register your phone number with your state's no call program to limit the number of calls you receive from telemarketers.
- Stop pre-approved credit card offers. Stop pre-approved credit card offers by calling toll-free to 1-888-5OPTOUT (888-567-8688).
- Check your bills and bank statements. Look at your statements as soon as you get them to see if there are any unauthorized charges or withdrawals. If there are, report them right away.
- Keep a list of all credit cards and bank accounts. Keep a list of all account numbers, phone numbers and expiration dates in a safe place.
- Pay attention to Internet security. Make certain you have firewall and virus and spyware protection on your computer. Check your browser security settings to make certain they aren't too low.
- Check your credit report regularly. Checking your report regularly is one of the best ways to protect against ID theft. You can get your free credit report from Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion by calling 1-877-322-8228 or online at http://www.annualcreditreport.com.
- Be aware of your environment. Individuals lingering around can listen to conversations and obtain personal information. When making reservations with a credit card take notice to be sure no one can overhear your conversation.
- Keep sensitive documents in a safe place. Repair people and visitors can easily gain access to personal information if it's left in plain view.
If It Happens to You
- Notify the credit reporting agencies. Report the theft to each of the three major credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian, TransUnion) immediately and ask them to place a fraud alert on your report. The fraud alert will be active for 90 days. A fraud alert can be renewed every 90 days for seven years. A fraud alert notifies creditors if an attempt to open an account in your name occurs. You may not necessarily be notified.
- Contact your creditors. If an identity thief has used a credit card, or has opened a new account or credit card in your name, contact the creditor and explain what happened as soon as possible. Close all your accounts and open new ones.
- Put a security freeze on your credit report. A "freeze" is stronger than a "fraud alert" because it remains in place until you release it and requires that you be alerted if an account in your name is requested. The freeze must be requested in writing to each of the three credit reporting agencies and you may need to pay a small fee. Since you can get a "fraud alert" by phone, take that step first, followed up with a "freeze" request.
- Report the theft to the police. Your local police department is required to prepare a report of identity theft even if the theft might have occurred at some other place. Get a copy of the report for yourself. A police report can allow you to place a freeze on your credit report at no charge.
- File an identity theft complaint with your state's Office of Privacy Protection. The OPP can help you take the steps you need to resolve problems caused by identity theft.
- Contact your bank. Let your bank know your identity has been stolen even if the thief has not used your bank accounts or ATM/debit card. Consider closing and reopening new accounts with new numbers and obtaining new ATM/debit card with a new PIN. Ask your bank if you can place a password on your accounts.
- Talk to debt collectors if they contact you. If a debt collector calls, explain that you are the victim of identity theft and that the bill they are trying to collect was not incurred by you and ask for any forms you need to fill out to show proof.
- Contact utility companies. If an identity thief establishes phone or utility service in your name, contact the utility or phone company and follow the same process described for if a debt collector contacts you.
- If you are accused of a crime committed in your name, explain to the police that your identity has been stolen and provide the police with a copy of the police report you filed.
- Contact the state division of motor vehicles If your driver's license or ID card is stolen.
- If your mail was stolen or an identity thief used a false address, contact the nearest postal inspector by calling the United States Postal Service at 1-800-275-8777. You can also file a mail theft complaint online.
To file a complaint, contact the Office of Privacy Protection. For more information on identity theft in Wisconsin, contact Joe Veenstra, La Crosse attorney at Johns, Flaherty & Collins, at 608-784-5678.