Identity Theft

An identity thief is someone who obtains some piece of your sensitive information, like your Social Security number, date of birth, address, and phone number, and uses it without your knowledge to commit fraud or theft.

How Identity Thieves Get Your Information 
Skilled identity thieves use a variety of methods to gain access to your personal information. For example, they may:

  • get information from businesses or other institutions by:
    • stealing records or information while they're on the job
    • bribing an employee who has access to these records
    • hacking these records
    • conning information out of employees
  • rummage through your trash, the trash of businesses, or public trash dumps in a practice known as "dumpster diving"
  • get your credit reports by abusing their employers' authorized access to them, or by posing as a landlord, employer, or someone else who may have a legal right to access your report
  • steal your credit or debit card numbers by capturing the information in a data storage device in a practice known as "skimming." They may swipe your card for an actual purchase, or attach the device to an ATM machine where you may enter or swipe your card.
  • steal wallets and purses containing identification and credit and bank cards
  • steal mail, including bank and credit card statements, new checks, or tax information
  • complete a "change of address form" to divert your mail to another location
  • steal personal information from your home
  • scam information from you by posing as a legitimate business person or government official

How Identity Thieves Use Your Information 
Once identity thieves have your personal information, they may:

  • go on spending sprees using your credit and debit card account numbers to buy "big-ticket" items like computers that they can easily sell
  • open a new credit card account, using your name, date of birth, and Social Security number. When they don't pay the bills, the delinquent account is reported on your credit report.
  • change the mailing address on your credit card account. The imposter then runs up charges on the account. Because the bills are being sent to the new address, it may take some time before you realize there's a problem.
  • take out auto loans in your name
  • establish phone or wireless service in your name
  • counterfeit checks or debit cards, and drain your bank account
  • open a bank account in your name and write bad checks on that account
  • file for bankruptcy under your name to avoid paying debts they've incurred, or to avoid eviction
  • give your name to the police during an arrest. If they are released and don't show up for their court date, an arrest warrant could be issued in your name.

Protecting Yourself 
Managing your personal information is key to minimizing your risk of becoming a victim of identity theft.

  • Keep an eye on your purse or wallet, and keep them in a safe place at all times.
  • Don't carry your Social Security card.
  • Don't share your personal information with random people you don't know. Identity thieves are really good liars, and could pretend to be from banks, Internet service providers, or even government agencies to get you to reveal identifying information.
  • Read the statements from your bank and credit accounts and look for unusual charges or suspicious activity. Report any problems to your bank and creditors right away.
  • Tear up or shred your charge receipts, checks and bank statements, expired charge cards, and any other documents with personal information before you put them in the trash.

How To Tell If You're a Victim of Identity Theft 
Monitor the balances of your financial accounts. Look for unexplained charges or withdrawals. Other indications of identity theft can be:

  • failing to receive bills or other mail signaling an address change by the identity thief
  • receiving credit cards for which you did not apply
  • denial of credit for no apparent reason
  • receiving calls from debt collectors or companies about merchandise or services you didn't buy.

What To Do If Your Identity's Been Stolen 
If you suspect that your personal information has been used to commit fraud or theft, take the following four steps right away. Follow up all calls in writing; send your letter by certified mail, and request a return receipt, so you can document what the company received and when; and keep copies for your files.

  1. Place a fraud alert on your credit reports and review your credit reports. Contact any one of the nationwide credit reporting companies to place a fraud alert on your credit report. Fraud alerts can help prevent an identity thief from opening any more accounts in your name. The company you call is required to contact the other two, which will place an alert on their versions of your report, too.

Equifax: 1-800-525-6285;
Experian: 1-888-EXPERIAN (397-3742);
TransUnion: 1-800-680-7289;

In addition to placing the fraud alert on your file, the three credit reporting companies will send you free copies of your credit reports, and, if you ask, they will display only the last four digits of your Social Security number on them.

  1. Close the accounts that you know, or believe, have been tampered with or opened fraudulently. 
    Contact the security or fraud department of each company where you know, or believe, accounts have been tampered with or opened fraudulently. Follow up in writing, and include copies (NOT originals) of supporting documents. It's important to notify credit card companies and banks in writing. Send your letters by certified mail, return receipt requested, so you can document what the company received and when. Keep a file of your correspondence and enclosures.
    When you open new accounts, use new Personal Identification Numbers (PINs) and passwords. Avoid using easily available information like your mother's maiden name, your birth date, the last four digits of your Social Security number, your phone number, or a series of consecutive numbers.
  1. File a report with your local police or the police in the community where the identity theft took place. Get a copy of the police report or, at the very least, the number of the report. It can help you deal with creditors who need proof of the crime. If the police are reluctant to take your report, ask to file a "Miscellaneous Incidents" report, or try another jurisdiction, like your state police. You also can check with your state Attorney General's office to find out if state law requires the police to take reports for identity theft. Check the Blue Pages of your telephone directory for the phone number or check for a list of state Attorneys General.
  1. File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.

    By sharing your identity theft complaint with the FTC, you will provide important information that can help law enforcement officials across the nation track down identity thieves and stop them. The FTC also can refer your complaint to other government agencies and companies for further action, as well as investigate companies for violations of laws that the FTC enforces.

    You can file a complaint online at If you don't have Internet access, call the FTC's Identity Theft Hotline, toll-free: 1-877-IDTHEFT (438-4338); TTY: 1-866-653-4261; or write: Identity Theft Clearinghouse, Federal Trade Commission, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20580.

For more information, see Deter, Detect, Defend: Avoid ID Theft, or Take Charge: Fighting Back Against Identity Theft

Types of Fraud Alerts

By Payton Pritchard 
Each year, about 9 million Americans become victims of identity theft, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Thieves assume an identity other than their own and use either the victim's Social Security number or the victim's credit card number to commit fraud. However, victims can prevent any further damage to their credit record by placing one of two types of fraud alerts on their credit reports.

  • Initial Fraud Alert
    • If personal information has been stolen or lost, you can file an initial fraud alert. The agency you file an initial fraud alert with should notify the other credit bureaus about the alert. But mistakes happen, so if you want to individually notify the agencies yourself, you can do that as well. Placing an initial fraud alert on your credit report will give current and potential creditors notice to verify your identity before approving any credit. You're permitted to receive one free credit report, one from each agency. An initial fraud alert is good for at least 90 days. If you want to renew the alert, you can do so before the current alert expires.
  • Extended Fraud Alert
    • If you know you're a victim of identity theft, suggests you file an extended fraud alert. Just as with an initial fraud alert, you will have to provide personal information confirming your identity. With an extended fraud alert, creditors must call you. You need to be available to talk to creditors who are working to help you repair damage to your credit report. According to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, under an extended fraud alert, you're permitted two free credit reports within 12 months from the three agencies. Your name also will be taken off marketing lists, for up to five years. An extended fraud alert stays on your credit report for seven years.
  • Credit Freeze
    • If you want to take things further, you're allowed to "freeze" your credit. A freeze essentially prevents identity thieves from opening new accounts in your name. It also blocks access to your credit report from potential creditors and third parties.


    • Identity thieves use personal identities to open insurance and investment accounts, receive medical services, get an apartment, house, car, cell phone or utility services.

Make sure you do what you can to protect your identity by shredding personal documents and bills, use a post office box instead of your home mailing address, never provide personal information to someone who calls you, get firewall protection for your computer, don't open unsolicited emails and stop junk mail from being delivered to you.

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