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Identity theft involves acquiring key pieces of someone's identifying information (name, address, date of birth, social security number, driver's license number) in order to impersonate that person. This information enables the identity thief to commit numerous forms of fraud which often includes taking over the victim's financial accounts, opening new bank accounts, purchasing automobiles, applying for loans/credit cards/social security benefits, renting apartments, and establishing services with utility and phone companies.

Identity thieves get your personal information by stealing wallets and purses containing your identification and credit/bank cards; by stealing your mail including your bank/credit card statements, pre-approved credit offers, telephone calling cards and tax information ( i.e. "box bashing"); by completing a "change of address form" to divert your mail to another location; by rummaging through trash looking for personal information (i.e. "dumpster diving"); by watching as you punch in your telephone calling card/credit card number or by listening as you give out your credit card or driver's license number (i.e. "shoulder surfing"); by fraudulently posing as a landlord or employer (or someone else who may have a legitimate need for the information) to obtain your credit report; by using the personal information you share on the Internet; or by buying your personal information from "inside" sources such as store or bank employees.

The Federal government and 45 states have passed laws that address the growing problem of identity theft. The Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act, enacted by Congress in October 1998, is the federal law directed at identity theft. Federal identity theft cases are prosecuted by the U.S. Department of Justice. California's identity theft law was enacted in 1997 as Penal Code 530.5 - 530.7. The punishment is either: a) imprisonment in a county jail not to exceed one year or a fine not to exceed $1,000 (or both imprisonment and fine), or b) by imprisonment in the state prison, a fine not to exceed $10,000 (or both imprisonment and fine).

While you probably can't prevent identity theft entirely, you can minimize your risk by practicing the following safeguards:

Preventive Actions - Mail, Credit Cards, Personal/Financial Information

  • Promptly remove mail from your mailbox after delivery.
  • Deposit outgoing mail in post office mailboxes. Do not leave in unsecured mail receptacles such as your home mailbox.
  • Be conscious of normal receipt of routine financial statements. Contact the sender if they are not received in the mail.
  • Never put your credit card or any other financial account number on a postcard or on the outside of an envelope.
  • Shred all personal financial information (such as credit card and bank statements, tax information) and mail (such as pre-approved credit cards, bills and receipts).
  • Never leave receipts at bank machines, counters, trash receptacles or gasoline pumps. When you no longer need it, shred it.
  • Save all credit card receipts and match them against your monthly bills.
  • social security cardEmpty your wallet of extra credit cards and IDs - or, better yet, cancel the ones you do not use and maintain a list of the ones you do.
  • NEVER carry your social security card.
  • Memorize your social security number and all of your passwords. Do not record them on any cards or on anything in your wallet or purse.
  • Never give out personal information over the telephone, such as your social security number, date of birth, mother's maiden name, or PIN code unless you initiated the phone call. Protect this information and release it only when absolutely necessary. Decline inquiries and ask why it is being requested. Use other identifiers if possible.
  • Beware of mail or telephone solicitations disguised as promotions offering instant prizes or awards. These solicitations are scams designed to obtain your personal and financial information.
  • Notify your credit card companies and financial institutions in advance of any change of address or phone number.
  • Closely monitor expiration dates on your credit cards. Contact the issuer if replacement cards are not received prior to the expiration dates.
  • If you applied for a new credit card and it hasn't arrived in a timely manner, call the issuer.
  • Sign all new credit cards upon receipt.
  • Report all lost or stolen credit cards immediately.
  • Never loan your credit cards to anyone else.
  • Order your credit report from the three credit bureaus once a year to check for fraudulent activity, discrepancies or unauthorized inquiries.
      1. Equifax 800/685-1111
      2. Experian 888/397-3742
      3. TransUnion 800/916-8800

Preventive Actions - Internet
Unsolicited e-mails should always be treated with suspicion. Never respond to bulk e-mails, even to ask to be un-subscribed, as that tells the senders that they have reached a valid e-mail address.

If you receive an e-mail request that appears to be from your Internet Service Provider (ISP) requesting credit card information or updated account information, do not respond without first checking with your ISP directly via their toll-free telephone number. This is a frequent scam.

The safest way to purchase things online is with a credit card because you can dispute the charge. Do not disclose information such as your social security number, passwords or any other personal identifiers - only provide information to verify your card and shipping/billing address.

Print out hard copies of all online transactions (a respectable e-commerce site will tell you to do so).

If you use online auctions, use the protections that they have put in place for you. Check the posted comments about sellers and buyers. Understand stated terms.

Be wary of free advice (stock tips, mortgage rates, etc.), as there is usually a motive involved, and that motive is simple: They want to make money off of you. Don't respond but if you do reply, do not provide any personal information.

"If it looks too good to be true, it probably is" also applies to the Internet. Be careful of "great deals" and "special offers." Make sure you always know exactly what you are getting and with whom you are dealing.

If you are a victim of Internet fraud, file a complaint with the ICCC (Internet Crime Complaint Center) which is co-sponsored by the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center. The form can be accessed at the web site of the Internet Crime Complaint Center. 

Action Steps for Victims

  • Contact all creditors, by phone and in writing, to inform them of the problem.
  • Alert your banks to flag your accounts and contact you to confirm any unusual activity. Request new accounts, PINs and passwords.
  • Contact the Mill Valley Police Department at 415/389-4100 to file a report.
  • Call each of the three credit bureaus' fraud units to request a "Fraud Alert/Victim Impact" statement placed in your credit file asking that creditors call you before opening any new accounts.
      1. Equifax 800/525-6285
      2. Experian 888/397-3742
      3. TransUnion 800/680-7289
  • Keep a log of all your contacts and make copies of all documents.
  • Contact the Federal Trade Commission at 877/438-4338 to complete an ID Theft Affidavit.
  • Depending on what personal information has been stolen, you may need to contact the Social Security Administration, Department of Motor Vehicles or the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. 

8 Ways to Protect Your Identity

Identity theft is the fastest-growing crime in the nation and tops the list of consumer complaints, according to the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC estimates that almost 9 million Americans have their identities stolen each year,  with an average of over $47 billion in costs to businesses and $5 billion to consumers. Most of these cases involved misuse of an existing credit card account. 

Most people's perception is that identity theft is usually linked to the Internet, but most identity theft fraud can be traced back to stolen mail, with lost and stolen wallets/purses and stealing personal information from the trash ("dumpster diving") making up the top three paths to fraud.

Identity theft risk can be reduced and you can protect yourself from becoming a victim of this crime by doing the following:

  1. Guard your Social Security number:
    Your Social Security number is the key to your credit report and banking accounts and the prime target of criminals. Do not print your number on your checks and never carry your card with you. After applying for a loan, credit card, rental or anything else that requires a credit report, request that your number (and your driver license number) on the application be truncated or completely obliterated, and your original report be shredded before your eyes or returned to you once a decision has been made. A lender needs to retain only your name and credit score to justify a decision. Check your Social Security Earnings and Benefits statement once a year to check for fraud and any discrepancies.
  2. Mail payments from a secure location:
    Do not leave outgoing mail such as bill payments and checks sitting in your non-secure mailbox at home -- always use a closed US Postal box. Checks can be stolen and used for account information or washed with chemicals and used again. If you must use a non-locking mailbox, collect your mail as soon as possible after delivery.
  3. Buy a shredder and use it:
    Shred all bank, credit card and financial statements as well as "junk mail" credit card offers, before trashing them. A crosscut shredder is more effective than a regular shredder.
  4. Monitor your credit card activity:
    Carefully examine your credit card statements for fraudulent charges. If you don't need or frequently use department store or bank issued credit cards, close the accounts. Know the cycle of your credit cards in case the new cards or statements have not shown up in the mail on a timely basis.
  5. Check your credit report:
    Credit reports can alert you to fraudulent activity in your financial records. Get a copy of your credit report from the three reporting agencies once a year. Check your credit history to see if someone has applied for credit using your name and/or information.

    To order copies of your credit report:

    Equifax: 800/997-2493
    Experian: 888/397-3742
    TransUnion: 800/916-8800
  6. Know who you are talking to:
    Never give any personal information over the phone, on the Internet or at a store unless you have initiated the transaction, the information is necessary and pertinent and you trust the business. Ask why the information is being requested and how it will be used before you supply any personal information.
  7. Keep the minimum in your wallet or purse:
    Don't keep receipts, credit cards you don't use, your Social Security card and any personal and financial identifying information in your wallet or purse. Keep duplicate records of the contents of your wallet by placing the contents on a photocopy machine. Copy both sides of your driver license and credit cards so you have all the account numbers, expiration dates and phone numbers if your wallet or purse is lost or stolen.
  8. Remove your name from marketing lists:
    The US Postmaster recently stated that 30% of check and credit card offers received in the mail are used fraudulently. It makes sense that if you reduce the amount of junk mail and financial offers you receive in the mail, you can also reduce the risk of fraud. The three credit reporting bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) maintain and sell marketing lists. To reduce the number of pre-approved credit offers, junk mail and telephone solicitations you receive, request the removal of your name from these lists by calling 1-888-567-8688 (OPTOUT). To remove your name from Advo Systems and Direct Marketing Association telephone and mailing lists, complete and mail the two forms below.  There is a $1 fee to OPTOUT of Direct Mail Association mail and call list.

Further Information
For more information and assistance, you can access the following Web sites:

Department of Justice
Federal Trade Commission
Privacy Rights Clearinghouse

Many crimes are preventable and by managing your personal information wisely, cautiously and with an awareness of the issue, you can help guard against identity theft.

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Last updated: 8/1/2012 10:57:41 AM