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Identity theft is America’s fastest growing crime. According to Javelin Strategy and Research, a firm dedicated to researching financial service topics, in 2016 nearly 15.4 million people were the victims of identity theft, totaling $16 billion in fraudulent charges. Their research also shows that the average victim spends an average of six months and 200 hours of work trying to resolve the issue.
An identity theft occurs when someone obtains your personal information and uses your identity to steal your finances, your clean background record, or your medical history. Using your social security number and maybe a driver’s license number, thieves can open credit cards, bank loans, and checking accounts. Using your background information, they can get jobs and health insurance. As a victim of identity theft, you pay the price by having loans and job opportunities denied, getting arrested for a crime you did not commit, and losing your good name. It’s a stressful and frustrating experience that can take weeks, months, and even years to clear.
Fortunately, you can take steps to lower your chances of being an identity theft victim. The following guidelines will help:
1. Lighten your wallet.
Reduce the number of credit cards you carry on a daily basis. For most people, having one card in their wallet is sufficient for day-to-day activity. If you are traveling or making a big purchase, you can take other credit cards, as needed. Also, never carry your birth certificate, passport, or social security card unless you need it for travel or other purposes. Once your need is over, promptly remove the item from your wallet or purse and store the document in a safe place. Finally, keep a record of all your credit card numbers and the company’s phone number should you need to report a theft.
2. Shred unneeded documents and mail.
Buy a high-quality shredder that does cross-shredding, as this will give you the most protection. After you get your mail for the day, be sure to open every envelope, even if you think it’s junk mail. Decide which items you’re going to save and file and which you’re going to discard. Before throwing anything away, check it for personal or financial information. Be sure to shred any junk mail that includes account numbers or personal information. Also remember to shred unused checks or deposit forms, as well as store and ATM receipts.
3. Guard your personal information.
Never give out any personal information over the phone, via mail and email, or on the Internet unless you have an established relationship with the company. If you get a phone call, letter, or email from a company you know, be cautious. Most companies won’t ask you for personal information when they initiate the communication. If it’s a phone call, politely tell the person you’ll call the customer service department back at the number you have on file and will discuss the matter with them at that time. Do not call back on the alternate number the person on the line gives you. Likewise, if you get a letter from a company and they ask you to fill out some personal information and then mail it back in the enclosed envelope, don’t do it. Call the company at the number you have on file and ask if the mailing is legitimate. Finally, never click on links you get in an email from a company. Go to the actual web site by typing the company’s address into your Internet address bar, or better yet, call the company about the email. Few companies will ever ask for your personal information via email.
4. Protect your computer and email.
Install firewalls and virus protection on all your computers, and keep any protection program current by doing the recommended updates. These products will prevent hackers from getting into your hard drive and stealing your information. They’ll also stop worms and viruses from forcing your computer to transmit private information to others.
5. Remove your name from marketing lists of credit reporting agencies.
If you’re tired of all the pre-approved credit offers you get in the mail, rest assured that you can reduce or even eliminate the numbers of mailings you get. Realize that thieves open mailboxes and grab these pre-approved offers. They then use them to open lines of credit in your name. To get your name off the mailing lists, visit www.optoutprescreen.com or call 1- (888) 567-8688. By providing some basic information, you can elect to opt out of these offers for a period of five years or forever.
6. Inspect your credit rating once a year.
You can get a free credit report each year from each of the three main credit reporting agencies. Visit www.annualcreditreport.com or call 1- (877) 322-8228 for information on how to do so. As you review your credit report, look for any credit inquiries you did not make, any accounts you did not open and any unexplained debts you did not initiate. Remember to do this for each of the agencies, as you may different information on each. Each agency has its own reporting guidelines.
7. Track all your credit card, bank and billing statements.
As you open your statements each month, thoroughly read them too make sure all the charges and transactions are legitimate. Identity thieves count on the fact that many people are either too busy or too lazy to read their statements, and that’s how many identity theft cases go on for a long time before the activity is spotted. Keep all your receipts, and at month’s end, match the charges to your receipts. When done, you can shred the receipts.
When identity theft hits home, hit back
If you suddenly start receiving new credit cards in the mail that you did not request, get denied credit for no apparent reason, or receive calls about purchases you did not make, you may be an identity theft victim and need to act fast. Immediately call each of the credit reporting agencies and have them place a “fraud alert” on your file. This action will prevent the thief from getting more credit cards and loans in your name. In general, if you call one agency, they will automatically notify the other agencies. However, if you like to play it safe, call all three of the following numbers: Equifax 1-(877) 576-5734, Experian 1-(888) 397-3742 and TransUnion 1-800-080-7289.
Contact the appropriate companies to dispute any fraudulent charges. Some companies have their own dispute forms; others will accept the Federal Trade Commission’s ID Theft Affidavit, available at www.consumer.gov/idtheft. Additionally, check all affected accounts and notify the security department of each company where your account has been compromised. Tell your bank to stop payment on any unauthorized checks, and notify the check verification service where the bank does business of the identity theft. Finally, file a police report of the incident. This will provide proof that identity theft actually did occur.
Identity theft is a serious crime that has ruined many lives. Don’t let your credit and your good name be next. Treat your financial and personal information with care, and be vigilant about checking your statements and accounts. The more proactive you are about protecting yourself, the lower your chances of being the next identity theft victim.