The Extent of ID Theft
Just how many people have been victims of ID theft is a matter of some debate. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reported in 2003, in a survey commissioned specifically to analyze ID theft trends, that almost 10 million Americans were the victims of some form of ID theft in 2003. However, the FTC also reported that it had received just over 246,000 direct complaints of ID theft in 2004.
Other groups put the estimates even higher. According to a survey just issued by Privacy and American Business, a nonprofit and nonpartisan public policy think tank, some 20% of Americans have been victims of ID theft, indicating a total of more than 44 million people.
Whatever the true number of people affected, most experts agree that the number is growing and that the effects of ID theft are expensive and time-consuming. A 2003 survey by the Identity Theft Resource Center found that victims of ID theft spent an average of 600 hours and $1,495 out-of-pocket expenses to resolve the thefts.
There is some good news in these somewhat depressing statistics, though. You can take some relatively simple steps to protect your identity and minimize the possibility and consequences of theft.
***15 Steps to Protect Your Identity***
1. Lock up your social security card, birth certificate, passport, and other personal IDs that contain sensitive information. Do not carry these items with you (except when absolutely necessary, such as to travel to a foreign country) or keep them in areas accessible to workers in your house.
2. Do not give out your social security number (SSN) unless absolutely necessary. Ask for a different identifying number if the SSN is being used (such as for a state driver's licence).
3. Destroy all documents containing personally identifying information when you dispose of them. In particular, make sure to destroy bank and credit card statements, expired credit cards, old tax documents, health insurance forms, medical records, and utility bills. If you use a shredder, use one that cross shreds for the best destruction.
4. Shred all credit card and mortgage offers. ID thieves can use them to apply for credit in your name. Better yet, call 1-888-5-OPTOUT (1-888-567-8688) to opt out of receiving offers of credit based on your credit report.
5. Limit the number of credit cards you have and cancel all card accounts that you do not currently use. The fewer cards you have, the easier it is to keep track of them.
6. Check credit card and bank statements each month as soon as they arrive or are available online. This is the best way to detect any unauthorized use, plus most credit card companies and financial institutions only allow you to challenge mistakes for a set period of time, typically 60 days. Also, ask credit card companies not to send you "convenience" checks that could easily be stolen.
7. Limit use of debit cards attached to your bank accounts. For example, do not use them at restaurants (or anywhere else that they leave your sight) or for online transactions. Federal law, bank policies, and debit card issuers generally protect against most debit card losses, but the extent of the protection varies. And, as a practical matter, your bank account could be emptied before you can stop unauthorized transactions, leaving you with no cash at least for a period of time.
8. Pick up new checks at the bank instead of having them sent to your mailbox.
9. Keep an eye on your mail. Deposit outgoing mail in post office collection boxes, don't put it in your home mailbox if it is unsecured, and promptly remove delivered mail. Stop mail delivery when you go on vacation.
10. Check your credit report regularly to look for unauthorized credit applications. The fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACTA), the same law that requires employers to propertly dispose of consumer reports created by third parties, gives every person a free annual credit report. Free reports are being phased in from West to East, but everyone will be able to get one beginning September 1, 2005. To get yours, visit www.annualcreditreport.com or call toll-free 1-877-322-8228.
11. Do not respond to unsolicited email asking for personal information--so called "phishing" and "pharming" schemes. Thieves often will send out emails that appear to be from legitimate entities, such as banks, asking you to provide personal information, account information, and passwords. Some even direct you to provide the info on "secure" fake Web sites that look authentic, using corporate logos, etc. As a practical note, your bank or credit card issuer typically will not send out emails to ask for this type of information. If you really think it is from your bank, call them directly, but do not use a number provided on a suspicious email.
12. Protect your home computer. Use, and update regularly, virus and firewall protections to prevent outside access to your computer. Also, use "strong passwords to protect your financial and other personal information that mix letters and numbers. Do not use common identifiers like your mother's maiden name or your birth date. In addition, change passwords regularly for added protection and keep any written record of your paswords in a secure place, not on your computer.
13. Destroy all personal and financial information on your computers before discarding or giving them away. Simply deleting files is not enough. You need to erase the files using special data destruction programs.
14. Immediately report any losses of personal identification and credit cards. For example, close credit card accounts and contact your state's drivers' license agency to flag your file so no one else can apply for a driver's license in your name.
15. Consider purchasing special ID theft protection. ID theft protection plans typically monitor your credit report and report any suspicious activity. In the event of a theft, the best plans will help you file reports, dispute unauthorized activity, and restore your identity.
*** Be Prepared***
While experts analyzing the ID theft statistics can't seem to agree on how many people have been affected by ID theft(millions or thousands), they do all seem to label it as the fastest growing white collar crime.
And most experts also agree that tracking down ID theft and repairing your credit can take hundreds of hours of your time, result in lost workdays, and cause stress. So, make sure to protect yourself by taking the 15 simple actions recommended above.
Also, just as importantly, if you become a victim of ID theft, take action quickly. You still can limit the damage by taking immediate steps to alert banks and creditors about the theft. The FTC recommends ID theft victims have the following four actions taken on their behalf immediately:
1. Place a fraud alert on your credit reports to prevent thieves from opening more accounts in your name by calling one of the three major report companies, Equifax, Experian, or TransUnion.
2. Close all accounts that you know, or think, have been affected.
3. File a report to register the theft with your local authorities.
4. File a complaint with the FTC to help law enforcement agencies track down identity thieves and spot trends.The FTC also may be able to refer you to other agencies that can help you.
For further tips and information on ID theft or to file a complaint, visit the FTC on its Web site at www.consumer.gov/idtheft, or call the FTC's ID Theft Hotline at 1-877-ID-THEFT(438-4338).
Phone: 1.800.322.0065 or 701.838.3716
Mail: PO Box 1026, Minot, ND 58702