- WHAT IS IDENTITY THEFT
Identity Theft is the process of obtaining an individual’s personal and financial information such as name, SSN, Credit card Numbers, Driving License Number etc., to take on that person’s identity and carry out transactions, frauds and even crimes. Once these thieves obtain your personal information, they can take away all the money from your banks, get health benefits on your medical insurance and even use up your credit card limit. Things can become even more serious before you realize it and most times, you are hit when you expect it the least.
Research shows that one in every 20 Americans can be a victim of some form of identity theft and fraud. Therefore, it is important to be extremely cautious about sharing one’s personal and financial information, keep a tight vigil on your financial statements and credit reports and take immediate steps in case you suspect any sort of misuse.
How is your personal information stolen?
The identity thieves are intelligent and resourceful people who have access t6o places where they can get hold of the victim’s information, like hospitals & clinics, government agencies or even your trash bins and even your computers to dig out and steal all confidential information. They then go ahead and pose as you, to carry out fraudulent transactions, spend or withdraw all your money, file refund in your name and take the money and in the worst case, commit a crime under your name.
- PROTECTING YOURSELF AGAINST IDENTITY THEFT
The first and foremost responsibility that you have is to protect yourself against the growing menace of identity theft. There is no such thing as being extra cautious or extra – vigilant when it comes to protecting yourself and your loved ones against any chances of getting the precious personal information stolen with an aim of misusing the same. Taking steps to protecting your personal information can go a long way in reducing your vulnerability as a likely identity theft victim.
There are many ways and means of protecting yourself against such threats. However all these can be categorized into few basic ways, such as:
- Share your personal information only with trusted sources only
- Ask questions to know for what purpose your information is needed and how they plan to use as well as protect your information.
- Storing your personal information securely, especially the social security number and being extra cautious when you dispose of the same.
- Secure your computer and other devices against any malware attacks that can steal your information and files
Being alert and cautious can prove to be your first line of defense in these times of growing frauds and scams when hapless citizens are being targeted by crooks to cheat them out of their money as well as the very basis of who they are, or their identity. There are many ways you can protect yourself from this type of a threat, let us look at some of the important areas you must pay attention for avoiding the problems:
Protecting Your Information Offline (Hard Copies)
Here are some simple ways you can reduce the chances of someone being able to steal your valuable information:
- Keep your documents, records and valuable information in a safe and secure place at home, especially if outsiders and other people like roommates or helps have an access to the place where you stay.
- Keep your personal documents and wallet secure in a locked safe at work, away from the reach of your coworkers.
- Do not carry all your documents with you every time. Only take the stuff that you need and leave your Social Security document at home. Carry photocopies of your medical card unless you need to use it during your visit.
- When you are asked to share your personal information in the workplace, during any other important transactions, ask explicitly about the purpose as well as what steps are being taken for keeping your information safe, and if there are any issues if you do not share the same. This is especially true about your SSN; clearly understand the consequences before you take a decision about sharing or not sharing the same.
- Shred all bills, invoices, statements, expired cards and offers that you do not need before throwing them away. The best place for the crooks to look for any telltale signs are normally your waste-paper bins!
- Never share your health care plans information and throw away medicine bottles after you have removed the labels to reducing exposing your health conditions to scammers. Be wary of people giving ‘too hard to be believed’ offers on healthcare products and services.
- Be sure to update communication address whenever you move. Do not leave your mails lying in your mailbox for days, and always keep your mailbox locked. When you are going on a vacation, explore the possibility of a ‘vacation hold’ on your posts. For sending posts, take them to the nearest post office or collection boxes.
- You can even opt out of receiving prescreened offers; however, you may miss some beneficial insurance and credit offers.
Protecting Your Information Online
In this day and age of information technology, we cannot help but marvel at the fact that the internet has really made our life simple and quick, but it is also true that it has given rise to a new highly intelligent and net savvy breed of crooks and scammers who steal people’s identity and money from right under their nose! Here are some of the ways you can protect yourself:
- Do not let your guards down- Always be alert and do not share your personal information online or on the phone unless you’re sure you’ve contacted the right people. Do not click on links on emails and messages unless you are 100% sure that they are from genuine people. Never give out your confidential information in response to requests that seem to be from genuine companies as scammers often set up look-alike sites. Do not excessively share your personal life on the social networking sites and limit the posts access to a small group of friends, to prevent the identity thieves from knowing too much about your life.
- Dispose of information and devices carefully- Before you hand over your desktops, laptops or mobile phones, make sure you permanently delete the stored information from the hard disks and memory drives of the devises and restore the factory settings to wipe out your personal information and contacts information.
- Transact only on secured sites and keep passwords safe – Look for the browser security icon (a lock icon) on the status to know whether the site is secured before, you share your personal information over the internet. Make sure the site uses multi-level encryption programs. Keep your passwords secure and never share it with anyone. Use creative passwords that will be difficult to hack.
- Keep your computers and devices secured – Install security (anti-virus, anti-spyware) software and firewalls to protect your computers, tablets and smartphones. Never respond to or open links in emails that seem to arouse slightest amounts of suspicion. Be wary of public Wi-Fi networks, avoid financial transactions on such open public networks, and avoid using public computers (like internet café). Always keep your devices locked so that even if the device is stolen, it is difficult to steal your information.
- SIGNS OF AN IDENTITY THEFT
If you have been attentive towards your personal and financial information, you can pick up early signs of misuse and identity theft attempts. Here are some instances that should ring a bell.
- Some transactions on your bank or credit card statements that you have no clue about.
- You have suddenly notice a substantial reduction in the bills, statements or other communication.
- Suddenly you have debts or bills that you haven’t incurred
- Your checks are dishonored and credit report shows strange items
- You have exhausted your credit and health plan limit without realizing it at all
- Your medical bills mount up though you are in perfect health.
- You seem to have filed more than one return or there are discrepancies in your income
- Immediate Steps In case of Identity Theft
It could also be possible that your documents and information may have been stolen, but you have not yet noticed any activity. However, this does not mean that you can relax; you should at once contact the credit bureaus and place a fraud alert on your file and get your free copy of the report to keep an eye on the same. Also, find out what your state law says about your rights when you lose your information and you should get an explanation of the same. You should create an identity theft report as that will give you access to your rights and help that you may need to get post the data theft.
Therefore, three things to be done quickly are:
- Report the theft & place a fraud alert
- Keep a vigil on your credit report
- Prepare an identity theft report
Basics of Identity Theft Report
This will be an important step in dealing with the situation if your personal data has been stolen. This report will help you manage the third party issues related to, misuse of your information, to open accounts or get credit etc. This report can help you get the fraudulent items removed from your reports, to stop a lender from recovering a debt that you never incurred, get information about transactions the thief may have done or the accounts he/she may have opened and place a long-term fraud vigil on your account.
It can be created easily by following the given steps:
- Submit a detailed report to the FTC and keep a copy of this, known as the Identity Theft Affidavit.
- Take this along when you file the police report; get a copy of the police report or the file number.
These two documents consist of your Identity Theft Report. Certain companies may require some additional information to process your request.
You should go about creating a checklist of the items that need to be verified and if needed removed from your credit file. You will need a follow-up through phone calls and regularly monitoring the progress, as this will go a long way in helping you overcome the loss and repairing your credit.
- Various Types of Identity Theft and Fraud
There are various types of identity theft depending on what information the thief is after and what use does he/ she put the information to.
- Tax Related – The thief can use your SSN to derive financial or TAX related benefits. For example, the thief may use your SSN to get a job or file a return and get a refund from the IRS.
This can be known if you are notified by the IRS that you have been paid by someone you have never worked for or there are more than one returns filed under your name. This should urge you to promptly dig deeper into the matter to check whether someone misused your Social Security number. You should immediately contact the IRS and update them about your concern. You should also follow the other steps discussed earlier and prepare your report.
- Child’s Identity – The thieves may use a child’s details to derive benefits or open bank accounts, or even to apply for a loan. Be careful when you fill up your child’s information in various documents like school forms, check how it will be used and stored and disposed. This will help you safeguard your child’s information against such thieves. Regularly monitor your child’s credit report to ascertain that there are no signs of misuse.
- Medical – An identity thief may be after your medical data and may use up your health insurance limit by getting the medical attention and treatment using your name and number. This may affect your health, medical and even your credit records. Hence, regularly check your medical and health insurance statements and in case you notice any discrepancy, immediately take it up and get the records rectified.
You should keep a watch for signs like your claim records, unexpected bill for medical treatment you never underwent, bills for medicines you never bought, and notice from your insurer regarding exhausting the limit etc. should never be taken lightly. Regularly get copies of your medical records and review carefully to check for any kinds of discrepancies that you may notice if your data has been misused. Be very careful about unbelievable offers on your medical and health plans, as they could be scammers or thieves, who are actually after your data.
- Dealing With Identity Theft and Repairing Your Records
Apart from the generic steps to safeguard your interests, depending on how serious the situation is, you may need to take some additional measures. In case, the thief has carried on a specific type of fraud using your stolen information. Here are some of the common frauds and the related measures to be taken.
- Fraud with government-issued id- Contact the concerned agency immediately and notify the issue. These may include the authorities issuing a driver’s license, or passport or Medicare cards.
- Your Mail is Stolen- The thief may steal your mails to get the personal and confidential information about the victims. This may lead to a series of frauds using your personal information, such as, income tax, credit frauds, open accounts etc. Such matters have to be reported to the U.S. postal Inspection Service for immediate investigations.
- Investment Information theft- In case the thief has managed to alter your investment or brokerage accounts you will immediately need to inform the broker and the account manager along with notifying the SEC.
- Student Loan Fraud- The thief may use your information to procure a student loan or any other type of credit. In case of student loan fraud, you should contact the school program office immediately.
- Tampering of your Utilities accounts - If the thief has managed to get a telephone, water, cable or electrical service, using your details, you will have to notify the service provider at the earliest.
- Bankruptcy Fraud – In case the thief files for bankruptcy using your information, you must contact the regional U.S. Trustee, which will refer the case for further investigation.
- Clearing your name from criminal records – In case the thief decides to sue your information during an arrest or investigation, your details may land up in the national criminal database. In such a case, you will need to contact the administrator to get the details transferred under the thief’s name from yours. You should also get the necessary documents to prove your innocence, to avoid any future trouble.
There could be additional steps that you may need to undertake, depending on how devastating the damage has been. Always remember the process will take a lot of confidence, determination and patience and the issue may soon be behind you. You may even decide to get an expert’s help in pulling you out of the pit. However, the most important thing is to treat your personal information with as much care as you can and keep a tight vigil on your records and documents.