15 Ways to Fight Identity Theft

In an era of high-speed communication and high-tech toys, the miracles of technology are constantly making the impossible possible. But, while improvement and progression are valid grounds for excitement, the same technology that makes our time so much more efficient is increasingly dangerous if we let it fall into the wrong hands. With just a few numbers, an identity thief can empty you bank accounts, open and max out new credit card accounts, and basically turn your life upside-down before you know what hit you. Identity theft is one of the most widespread and fastest-growing crimes in the world, but it doesn't have to happen to you. Here are fifteen ways to avoid identity theft: 1. Check your credit report! What you don't know can hurt you, so make sure you know what's on your credit report and how it got there. Each credit card bureau is required to give you one free copy of your credit report each year. Go to annualcreditreport.com to get yours. If your wallet is stolen, notify Experian at 888-397-3742, and have them put a fraud alert on your credit reports. This company is required by law to share your request with the other bureaus. 2. Buy a shredder. U.S. households received approximately 5.3 billion offers for new credit cards in 2007. Bank and credit card statements, as well as unsolicited junk mail, are often just what an identity thief is looking for. Your best bet is to shred any documents that have personal information, including your name and address. 3. Only carry what you need. A wallet full of cards, checks, and cash provides you with lots of options, but it does the same for any thief who may get their hands on it, and you will have a lot less headache reporting one card stolen than if you have to report a whole wallet-full. Knowing where you're going ahead of time and how much money you plan on spending will help you determine what you need with you, and help you avoid wasting money on unplanned spending. 4. Debit or Credit? Today, debit cards account for thirty-three percent of in-store transactions versus only nineteen percent for credit cards. While that may point to a trend toward a bit more financial responsibility, it also points to increased chances of identity theft. While credit cards companies are required to have a grace period by which you can report fraudulent charges, debit cards are lagging behind in security. When you contest charges made to your debit card, the money has already been withdrawn from your account, and if that withdrawal means an overdraft in your account, the bank is not required to repay the overdraft charges. 5. Opt out of unsolicited credit card offers. Call 888-567-8688 (supported by the consumer credit reporting industry). It will probably take about three months to stop the flood completely, but the sooner you start, the sooner you can get there. In the meantime, never respond to unsolicited offers. If an offer looks tempting, you should be able to get it in a store or online. Unsolicited ads work on a two-percent success rate. That means that if only two percent of the people that receive that annoying junk mail actually reply, the company has made a profit from it, and will continue to use those mailing lists. By opting out, you're doing everyone a favor. 6. Don't give your personal information away. If a vendor asks for more information during a transaction, write it down on a piece of paper and take it with you when you leave. If you give this information verbally, it is available to anyone within earshot. 7. Watch where you swipe. This way you can avoid "skimming." A skimmer is a small electronic device that can be placed right over the slot where you swipe your card on the ATM. Don't use an ATM if you notice that the scanning device looks suspicious. If there are signs posted asking that you input your PIN multiple times, or if an attendant or stranger offers to help you with a malfunctioning machine, cancel the transaction and walk away. Some restaurant workers have been known to have portable skimmers, so watch your card whenever you can. 8. Get a Spyware detector. Two out of three personal computers in the U.S. are infected with spyware, programs that can be embedded in your computer and raise your risk of identity theft. At lavasoftusa.com/software/adaware you can get good spyware protection absolutely free. Download Ad-aware SE Personal and run it often to catch anything suspicious. 9. Use different passwords for different accounts. Mix numbers and letters, upper-case and lower-case to be sure your accounts are safe from anyone who might want to gain access to them. Simple words make the most easily cracked passwords. 10. Don't open or respond to email from anyone you don't know. Never respond to emails from banks asking you to give out personal information. More often than not, those emails are not from someone helping you manage your account, but from someone who wants to get their hands into it. Other email scams include emails from people, supposedly in another country, asking you to help them by holding their money in your bank account. Never send your bank account, social security number, or any other personal information to someone you don't know. 11. Use gel-ink to fill out checks. Check thieves can erase the ink from a regular ballpoint pen with nail polish remover. Gel ink seeps into the paper, so once it dries, it's there for good. 12. Get a P.O. box. An open mailbox is like an open bag of candy for an identity thief, so a locking mailbox is always a better option. A post office box gives you the added bonus that, in the case of misdirected or intercepted mail, identity thieves do not have access to your physical address, which they would need in order to apply for anything with your information. 13. Check your receipts. Review your receipts as you sign them. Some merchants are still using credit card processing machines that print out the entire credit card number. This means that anyone who has access to those receipts can write down your credit card information. If the entire number is printed out, scratch out all but the last four or five digits. The current law only requires that the full number be hidden on the receipt you take home--the logic being that if it gets lost or thrown in the garbage, no one will be able to find it and use it. But the law doesn't require that your number be absent from the merchant's copy. Some clerks will tell you that they need the number in case there is an error with the credit card statements, but the last four or five digits is all they need. As soon as your credit card goes through their machine, the transaction is credited to the company and deducted from your account. There is no need for the full number to be on either slip. 14. Pay your bills online. Online services are generally very secure (as long as you have proper spyware detectors on your computer), and the fewer bills and checks you have floating around, the better. By paying your bills online, you lessen your chances of identity theft and use a lot less paper. 15. Enroll in online banking. Not only will this keep your account information out of malignant hands, it will also allow you a better handle on your account. You'll be able to track your balance and see, almost immediately, if a charge is made by anyone but yourself. If Your Identity Is Stolen If you are a victim of identity theft, take the following steps as soon as possible, and keep a detailed record of your conversations, as well as copies of all correspondence. 1. Place a fraud alert on your credit reports, and review your credit reports. Fraud alerts can help prevent an identity thief from opening any more accounts in your name. Contact the toll-free fraud number of any of the three consumer reporting companies below to place a fraud alert on your credit report. You only need to contact one of the three companies to place an alert. The company you call is required to contact the other two, which will place an alert on their versions of your report, too. If you do not receive a confirmation from a company, you should contact that company directly to place a fraud alert. Equifax: 1-800-525-6285; equifax.com; P.O. Box 740241, Atlanta, GA 30374-0241 Experian: 1-888-EXPERIAN (397-3742); experian.com; P.O. Box 9532, Allen, TX 75013 TransUnion: 1-800-680-7289; transunion.com; Fraud Victim Assistance Division, P.O. Box 6790, Fullerton, CA 92834-6790 Once you place the fraud alert in your file, you're entitled to order one free copy of your credit report from each of the three consumer reporting companies, and, if you ask, only the last four digits of your Social Security number will appear on your credit reports. Once you get your credit reports, review them carefully. Look for inquiries from companies you haven't contacted, accounts you didn't open, and debts on your accounts that you can't explain. Check to make sure information like your Social Security number, address(es), name or initials, and employers are correct. If you find fraudulent or inaccurate information, get it removed. When you correct your credit report, use an Identity Theft Report with a cover letter explaining your request, to get the fastest and most complete results. Continue to check your credit reports periodically, especially for the first year after you discover the identity theft, to make sure no new fraudulent activity has occurred. 2. Close the accounts that you know, or believe, have been tampered with or opened fraudulently. Call and speak with someone in the security or fraud department of each company. 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. If the identity thief has made charges or debits on your accounts, or has fraudulently opened accounts, ask the company for the forms to dispute those transactions. Once you have resolved your identity theft dispute with the company, ask for a letter stating that the company has closed the disputed accounts and has discharged the fraudulent debts. This letter is your best proof if errors relating to this account reappear on your credit report or you are contacted again about the fraudulent debt. 3. File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. You can file a complaint with the FTC using the online complaint form, or call the FTC's Identity Theft Hotline, toll-free at 1-877-ID-THEFT (438-4338); TTY: 1-866-653-4261; or write to: Identity Theft Clearinghouse, Federal Trade Commission, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20580. Be sure to call the Hotline to update your complaint if you have any additional information or problems. 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 can refer victims' complaints to other government agencies and companies for further action, as well as investigate companies for violations of laws the agency enforces. 4. File a report with your local police or the police in the community where the identity theft took place. Call your local police department and tell them that you want to file a report about your identity theft. Ask them if you can file the report in person. If you cannot, ask if you can file a report over the Internet or telephone. If the police are reluctant to take your report, ask to file a "Miscellaneous Incident" 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 visit naag.org for a list of state Attorneys General. Source: ftc.gov
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