Stolen Identity: A Consumer Nightmare

Updated July 10, 2020 | Infoplease Staff
Source: Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

A new type of criminal has emerged—one who can wreak havoc with your finances and credit and destroy your good reputation. It's relatively easy for a determined thief to steal your name, your Social Security number, your credit card number, or some other bit of personal information without your knowledge and commit fraud in your name.

Unfortunately, you may not find out that your identity has been stolen until you receive bills for credit card accounts that you never opened, debts that you never incurred, or charges on your bills that you didn't sign for, authorize, or know anything about.

How Can This Happen?

When you make everyday transactions like writing a check at a store, charging purchases, renting a car, mailing your tax return, calling home on your cell phone, ordering new checks, or applying for a credit card, chances are that you don't give this a second thought. But crooks known as “identity thieves” may be paying attention. Each transaction requires you to share your personal information such as your bank and credit card account numbers, your Social Security number, name, address, and phone numbers. Despite your best efforts to control your personal information, skilled thieves can use a variety of methods, low- and high-tech, to gain access to your data.

How Your Identity Is Stolen

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has listed the following ways that imposters can get your personal information and take over your identity:

  • They steal your wallet and purse containing your identification and credit and bank cards.
  • They steal your mail, including your bank and credit card statements, pre-approved credit offers, telephone calling cards, and tax information.
  • They complete a “change of address” form to divert your mail to another location.
  • They rummage through your trash, or the trash of businesses, for personal data in a practice known as “dumpster diving.”
  • They fraudulently obtain your credit card report by posing as a landlord, employer, or someone else who may have a legitimate need for and a legal right to the information.
  • They get your business or personnel records at work.
  • They find personal information in your home.
  • They use personal information you share on the Internet.
  • They buy your personal information from “inside” sources. For example, an identity thief may pay a store employee for information about you that appears on an application for goods, services, or credit.

How Your Stolen Identity Is Used

The crooks call your credit card company and, pretending to be you, ask to change the mailing address on your credit card account. The imposter then runs up charges on your account. Because your bills are being sent to the new address, it may take some time before you realize that there is a problem.

Thieves can also open a new credit card account using your name, date of birth, and Social Security number. When they use the credit card and don't pay the bills, the delinquent account is reported on your credit report.

Other scenarios include establishing a phone or wireless service in your name, opening a bank account in your name and writing bad checks on it, and buying cars by taking out auto loans in your name.

Minimize Risk

Sign your credit cards upon receipt. Only carry cards that you need. Do not carry your Social Security card. Never write your PIN or Social Security number on anything you are going to throw away. Shred documents containing your Social Security number.

Do not release personal information such as your Social Security or bank account number over the phone unless you made the phone call and understand why the information is necessary.

Obtain an annual copy of your credit report from the three main credit bureaus and ensure the material is correct.

Be aware of credit card billing cycles. If you do not receive a bill on time, contact the company. A thief charging purchases to your account would likely change your billing address, so that it would take you longer to discover the fraud.

To thwart an identity thief who may pick through your trash or recycling bins to capture your personal information, tear or shred your charge receipts, copies of credit applications, insurance forms, physician statements, checks and bank statements, expired charge cards that you’re discarding, and credit offers you get in the mail.

Try not to store financial information on your laptop unless absolutely necessary. If you do, use a strong password—a combination of letters (upper and lower case), numbers, and symbols. Don’t use an automatic log-in feature that saves your user name and password so you don’t have to enter them each time you log into or enter a site. And always log off when you’re finished. That way, if your laptop gets stolen, it’s harder for the thief to access your personal information.

Use a secure browser—software that encrypts or scrambles information you send over the Internet—to guard the security of your online transactions. Be sure your browser has the most up-to-date encryption capabilities by using the latest version available from the manufacturer. You also can download some browsers for free over the Internet. When submitting information, look for the “lock” icon on the browser’s status bar to be sure your information is secure during transmission.

Before you dispose of a computer, delete personal information. Deleting files using the keyboard or mouse commands may not be enough because the files may stay on the computer’s hard drive, where they may be easily retrieved. Use a “wipe” utility program to overwrite the entire hard drive. It makes the files unrecoverable.

If You're a Victim

Do these three things immediately:

1) Contact the fraud departments of each of the three major credit bureaus and report that your identity has been stolen. Ask that a “fraud alert” be placed on your file and that no new credit be granted without your approval.

Main Credit Reporting Bureaus:

  • Equifax, P.O. Box 740241, Atlanta, GA 30374-0241, 888-766-0008
  • Experian, P.O. Box 9532, Allen, TX 75013, 888-397-3742
  • Trans Union, P.O. Box 6790, Fullerton, CA, 92834, 800-680-7289

2) For any accounts that have been fraudulently accessed or opened, contact the security departments of the appropriate creditors or financial institutions. Close these accounts. Put passwords (not your mother's maiden name) on any new accounts you open. If your checks have been stolen or misused, close the account and ask your bank to notify the appropriate check verification service. You can also contact these major check verification companies. Ask that retailers who use their databases not accept your checks.

Major Check Verification Companies:

  • TeleCheck, 800-710-9898
  • Certegy, Inc., 800-437-5120
  • International Check Services, 800-631-9656

3) File a report with your local police or the police where the identity theft took place. Get a copy of the report in case the bank, credit card company, or others need proof of the crime later on.

4) File a complaint with the FTC. To file a complaint, visit, call the FTC’s Identity Theft Hotline: toll-free 1-877-IDTHEFT (438-4338), or write: Identity Theft Clearinghouse, Federal Trade Commission, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20580.

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