When I was a kid, I remember when thieves could steal your car, steal your purse, or even steal your wallet. Today there is a new target for smart and sophisticated thieves: your identity. Think about it – from the criminal’s perspective, this is the perfect crime. There is no gun required, almost no physical risk, a low chance of getting caught, and the potential for a very lucrative haul. Welcome to the 21st century.
This month I’m going to take a look at identity theft and answer some basic questions. What is identity theft? How does it happen? How can I prevent it? Next week we will take a look at some specific steps you can take if you have already been the victim of identity theft.
So what exactly is identity theft?
Identity theft occurs when a criminal steals your personally identifying information (name, social security number, birthdate, etc.) and uses the information to commit fraud. Identity thieves may use your identity to rent an apartment, get a telephone, obtain a credit card or even buy a new car! Often, victims of identity theft do not learn that they have been victimized until they review their credit report or are contacted by a debt collector.
How does identity theft occur?
Identity thieves use several common methods to obtain the information they need to commit their crime. Some criminals will go through your trash until they find discarded correspondence or other documents with your information. This practice is known as “dumpster diving.” Some criminals rig credit card machines to make a copy of your credit card information when you slide your card for a legitimate authorized transaction. The more “high tech” criminals use a complex method of posing as banks or other institutions to get information via email or fake websites. This technique is called “phishing,” and is one of the most effective and fastest growing means of obtaining your personal information.
There are several things you can do to help prevent identity theft.
First and foremost, be aware of the ways your personal information can be stolen and take the appropriate safeguards. You may wish to buy a personal shredder to use for sensitive documents you throw away at home such as all those pre-approved credit offers many of us receive. Also, be very careful about how and when you provide personal information over the internet. If you get an email from your bank or credit card company asking for information and providing a “link” to click on, ignore it. Call the number you have on file for the financial institution (do NOT rely on any phone number provided in the email) and ask them about the email over the phone. Remember to regularly review your credit report and look for errors or accounts you did not open. You can receive one free copy of your credit report annually. The official website for this process is: annualcreditreport.com. You can get additional information on identity theft and its prevention by visiting the Federal Trade Commission web site.
But what to do if you think you may already be a victim? Stay tuned, I’ll have some more advice for you soon.