Although I've written about identity theft, a federal crime, in the past, my editor recently has received a number of inquiries on the subject and asked me to review the topic. Since this subject is near and dear to my heart (and pocketbook), I'm glad to oblige.
ID theft - when someone intercepts or steals your personal identifying information - is on the rise, whether it's financial, medical, or kiddie info. One would think with so much publicity nowadays, the crime wave would decrease but, unfortunately, more and more criminals recognize a good thing when they see it. This type of theft offers lots of benefits to the crook with fewer chances of being apprehended than "normal" thievery.
Armed with resources from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Office of Tennessee's Attorney General, the Consumer Federation of America, and NextAdvisor, I'll share the best tips for recognizing identity theft, what to do once your identity is stolen, and how to protect yourself in the future.
ID thieves gain your info in a number of ways. The most obvious method is by stealing your wallet, purse, checkbook, or mail. "Dumpster diving," thought by many to be a robbery of the past, remains a favorite, particularly in apartment buildings where the trash usually is maintained within one area. These days, crooks also rely on their cell phones to take a picture of credit or debit cards as you use them or look over your shoulder to memorize the number. They hack your computer, make scam calls and/or listen to phone conversations, and fraudulently obtain your credit report. We're deluged on all sides.
In these days of bustling busyness, how do we know quickly enough we've been screwed? Think of identity theft as a nuclear attack. Studies show that early recognition of the problem can help us not only to minimize the radioactive fallout, but also to take protective measures to keep the fallout at a minimum.
• Carefully check your mail. If you're receiving bills for credit cards you didn't apply for or for other purchases you didn't make, you've probably been victimized. Too, finding pieces of mail are missing or receiving no mail at all is a clue someone is re-routing it to another address.
• Review all three credit reports on a regular basis. As suggested in previous columns, with the ability to now obtain a free yearly report from each bureau, it's advisable to get one report every four months. Obviously, if you see incorrect or fraudulent information on the one, then pay the small fee to get your hands on all three reports ASAP.
• Examine credit card and bank statements at least every month and, if you're at paranoid as I, then more frequently via their websites. (If necessary, personally and immediately contact the fraud info number.) Transactions you didn't make are definite red flags that demand an immediate call and email to the credit card issuer.
• Don't rest if you're turned down for a loan or given harsh credit terms for a loan. If your credit is in good shape and these stricter rules don't apply to the company, this could easily be a sign of identity theft.
• Monitor phone calls from so-called creditors or from people claiming you've expressed interest in a certain venture. If you receive a number of these types of calls, it's likely your information has been compromised.
• Periodically call the police. Ask if folks in your area have reported any similar suspicious phone calls. Whether or not the officer substantiates, it's still a good idea to file a report to start a paper trail in case an investigation does become essential at a later time.
(to be continued...)
Ellen Phillips is a retired English teacher who has written two consumer-oriented books. Her Consumer Watch column appears every Saturday and she may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org