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ID THEFT: What's It All About?
Letter to Consumers
How Identity Theft Occurs
How Can I Tell if I’m a Victim of Identity Theft?
Managing Your Personal Information
A Special Word About Social Security Numbers
If Your Identity’s Been Stolen
The Federal Trade Commission has published this booklet to help raise
consumer awareness of identity theft.
If you or someone you know is a victim of identity theft, please visit www.consumer.gov/idtheft.
The information you enter there becomes part of a secure database that’s used
by law enforcement officials across the nation to help stop identity thieves.
The site also has links to useful information from other federal agencies,
states and consumer organizations.
You also may want to call 1-877-ID THEFT, the FTC’s toll-free ID Theft
Hotline, where counselors help consumers who want or need more information about
dealing with the consequences of identity theft.
We encourage you to share this booklet with your family, friends, colleagues
J. Howard Beales, III
Bureau of Consumer Protection
Federal Trade Commission
The 1990's spawned a new variety of crooks called identity thieves. Their
stock in trade? Your everyday transactions, which usually reveal bits of your
personal information: your bank and credit card account numbers; your income;
your Social Security number (SSN); or your name, address and phone numbers. An
identity thief obtains some piece of your sensitive information and uses it
without your knowledge to commit fraud or theft.
Identity theft is a serious crime. People whose identities have been stolen
can spend months or years - and their hard-earned money - cleaning up the mess
the thieves have made of their good name and credit record. Some victims have
lost job opportunities, been refused loans for education, housing or cars, or
even been arrested for crimes they didn't commit.
Can you prevent identity theft from occurring? As with any crime, you cannot
completely control whether you will become a victim. But, according to the
Federal Trade Commission (FTC), you can minimize your risk by managing your
personal information cautiously and with heightened sensitivity.
How Identity Theft Occurs
Skilled identity thieves use a variety of methods to gain access to your
personal information. For example:
They get information from businesses or other institutions by:
stealing records from their employer,
bribing an employee who has access to these records, or
hacking into the organization's computers.
They rummage through your trash, the trash of businesses, or dumps in a
practice known as "dumpster diving."
They obtain credit reports by abusing their employer's authorized access
to credit reports or by posing as a landlord, employer, or someone else who
may have a legal right to the information.
They steal credit and debit card numbers as your card is processed by
using a special information storage device in a practice known as
They steal wallets and purses containing identification and credit and
They steal mail, including bank and credit card statements, pre-approved
credit offers, new checks, or tax information.
They complete a "change of address form" to divert your mail
to another location.
They steal personal information from your home.
They scam information from you by posing as a legitimate business person
or government official.
Once identity thieves have your personal information, they may:
Go on spending sprees using your credit and debit card account numbers
to buy "big-ticket" items like computers that they can easily
Open a new credit card account, using your name, date of birth and SSN.
When they don't pay the bills, the delinquent account is reported on your
Change the mailing address on your credit card account. The imposter
then runs up charges on the account. Because the bills are being sent to the
new address, it may take some time before you realize there's a problem.
Take out auto loans in your name.
Establish phone or wireless service in your name.
Counterfeit checks or debit cards, and drain your bank account.
Open a bank account in your name and write bad checks on that account.
File for bankruptcy under your name to avoid paying debts they've
incurred, or to avoid eviction.
Give your name to the police during an arrest. If they are released and
don't show up for their court date, an arrest warrant could be issued in
How Can I Tell if I'm a Victim of Identity Theft?
Indications of identity theft can be:
failing to receive bills or other mail signaling an address change by
the identity thief;
receiving credit cards for which you did not apply;
denial of credit for no apparent reason; or
receiving calls from debt collectors or companies about merchandise or
services you didn't buy.
Order a copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit
bureaus. If it's accurate and includes only those activities you've authorized,
chances are you're not a victim of identity theft. The law allows credit bureaus
to charge you up to $9 for a copy of your credit report.
To order your credit reports:
Managing Your Personal Information
So how can a responsible consumer minimize the risk of identity theft, as
well as the potential for damage? When it involves your personal information,
exercise caution and prudence.
Do It Now
Place passwords on your credit card, bank and phone accounts. Avoid using easily
available information like your mother's maiden name, your birth date, the last
four digits of your SSN or your phone number, or a series of consecutive
numbers. When you're asked for your mother's maiden name on an application for a
new account, try using a password instead.
Secure personal information in your home, especially if you have roommates,
employ outside help, or are having service work done in your home.
Ask about information security procedures in your workplace. Find out who
has access to your personal information and verify that your records are kept in
a secure location. Ask about the disposal procedures for those records as well.
Don't give out personal information on the phone, through the mail or over the
Internet unless you've initiated the contact or are sure you know who you're
dealing with. Identity thieves can be skilled liars, and may pose as
representatives of banks, Internet service providers (ISPs) or even government
agencies to get you to reveal identifying information. Before you divulge any
personal information, confirm that you're dealing with a legitimate
representative of a legitimate organization. Double check by calling customer
service using the number on your account statement or in the telephone book.
Guard your mail and trash from theft. Deposit outgoing mail in post office
collection boxes or at your local post office instead of an unsecured mailbox.
Remove mail from your mailbox promptly. If you're planning to be away from home
and can't pick up your mail, call the U.S. Postal Service at 1-800-275-8777 to
ask for a vacation hold. To thwart a thief who may pick through your trash or
recycling bins, tear or shred your charge receipts, copies of credit
applications or offers, insurance forms, physician statements, checks and bank
statements, and expired charge cards.
Before revealing any identifying information (for example, on an
application), ask how it will be used and secured, and whether it will be shared
with others. Find out if you have a say about the use of your information. For
example, can you choose to have it kept confidential?
Keep your Social Security card in a secure place and give your SSN only when
absolutely necessary. Ask to use other types of identifiers when possible. If
your state uses your SSN as your driver's license number, ask to substitute
Limit the identification information and the number of credit and debit
cards that you carry to what you'll actually need.
Pay attention to your billing cycles. Follow up with creditors if your bills
don't arrive on time. A missing credit card bill could mean an identity thief
has taken over your account and changed your billing address.
Keep your purse or wallet in a safe place at work.
A Special Word About Social Security Numbers
Very likely, your employer and financial institution will need your SSN for wage
and tax reporting purposes. Other private businesses may ask you for your SSN to
do a credit check, such as when you apply for a car loan. Sometimes, however,
they simply want your SSN for general record keeping. If someone asks for your
SSN, ask the following questions:
Why do you need it?
How will it be used?
How do you protect it from being stolen?
What will happen if I don’t give it to you?
If you don’t provide your SSN, some businesses may not provide you with
the service or benefit you want. Getting satisfactory answers to your questions
will help you to decide whether you want to share your SSN with the business.
Consider Your Computer
Your computer can be a goldmine of personal information to an identity thief.
Here's how you can safeguard your computer and the personal information it
Update your virus protection software regularly. Computer viruses can have
damaging effects, including introducing program code that causes your computer
to send out files or other stored information. Look for security repairs and
patches you can download from your operating system's Web site.
Don't download files from strangers or click on hyperlinks from people you
don't know. Opening a file could expose your system to a computer virus or a
program that could hijack your modem.
Use a firewall, especially if you have a high-speed or "always on"
connection to the Internet. The firewall allows you to limit uninvited access to
your computer. Without a firewall, hackers can take over your computer and
access sensitive information.
Use a secure browser - software that encrypts or scrambles information you
send over the Internet - to guard the safety of your online transactions. When
you're submitting information, look for the "lock" icon on the status
bar. It's a symbol that your information is secure during transmission.
Try not to store financial information on your laptop unless absolutely
necessary. If you do, use a "strong" password - that is, a combination
of letters (upper and lower case), numbers and symbols.
Avoid using an automatic log-in feature that saves your user name and
password; and always log off when you're finished. If your laptop gets stolen,
the thief will have a hard time accessing sensitive information.
Delete any personal information stored on your computer before you dispose
of it. Use a "wipe" utility program, which overwrites the entire hard
drive and makes the files unrecoverable.
Read Web site privacy policies. They should answer questions about the
access to and accuracy, security and control of personal information the site
collects, as well as how sensitive information will be used, and whether it will
be provided to third parties.
If Your Identity's Been Stolen
Even if you've been very careful about keeping your personal information to
yourself, an identity thief can strike. If you suspect that your personal
information has been used to commit fraud or theft, take the following
four steps right away. Remember to follow up all calls in writing; send
your letter by certified mail, return receipt requested, so you can document
what the company received and when; and keep copies for your files.
1. Contact the fraud departments of each of the three major credit
Equifax - To report fraud, call:
1-800-525-6285, and write: P.O. Box 740241, Atlanta, GA 30374-0241
Experian - To report fraud, call:
1-888-EXPERIAN (397-3742), and write: P.O. Box 9532, Allen, TX 75013
TransUnion - To report fraud, call:
1-800-680-7289, and write: Fraud Victim Assistance Division, P.O. Box 6790,
Fullerton, CA 92834-6790
Tell them you're a victim of identity theft, and ask them to place a
"fraud alert" in your file, as well as a "victim statement."
It's a signal to creditors to call you before they open any new accounts or
change your existing accounts, and helps prevent an identity thief from opening
additional accounts in your name. At the same time, order copies of your credit
reports. Credit bureaus must give you a free copy of your report if it's
inaccurate because of fraud and you send them a written
Check your credit reports carefully to make sure the information is
accurate. Look for inquiries you didn't initiate, accounts you didn't open and
unexplained debts on your true accounts. You also should check that information
such as your SSN, address(es), name or initial, and employers are correct.
Inaccuracies also may be due to typographical errors. Nevertheless, whether the
inaccuracies are due to fraud or error, notify the credit bureau as soon as
possible by telephone and in writing. In a few months, order new copies of your
reports - both to verify your corrections and changes, and to make sure no new
fraudulent activity has occurred.
"Fraud alerts" and "victim statements" are primarily
voluntary services of the credit bureaus. Creditors do not have to consider them
when granting credit. That's one more reason to check your credit reports
regularly. In addition, fraud alerts and victim statements expire; you need to
renew them periodically. Ask each credit bureau about its policy.
2. Close any accounts that have been tampered with or opened
Credit accounts include all accounts with banks, credit card companies and
other lenders, and phone companies, utilities, ISPs, and other service
If you're closing existing accounts and opening new ones, use new Personal
Identification Numbers (PINs) and passwords.
If there are fraudulent charges or debits, ask the company about the
following forms for disputing those transactions:
For new unauthorized accounts, ask if the company accepts the ID
Theft Affidavit (available at www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/pubs/credit/affidavit.pdf).
If they don't, ask the representative to send you the company's fraud dispute
For your existing accounts, ask the representative to send you the company's
fraud dispute forms.
If your ATM card has been lost, stolen or otherwise compromised, cancel the
card as soon as you can. Get a new card with a new PIN.
If your checks have been stolen or misused, close the account and ask your
bank to notify the appropriate check verification service. While no federal law
limits your losses if someone steals your checks and forges your signature,
state laws may protect you. Most states hold the bank responsible for losses
from a forged check, but they also require you to take reasonable care of your
account. For example, you may be held responsible for the forgery if you fail to
notify the bank in a timely way that a check was lost or stolen. Contact your
state banking or consumer protection agency for more information.
You also should contact these major check verification companies. Ask that
retailers who use their databases not accept your checks.
1-800-710-9898 or 927-0188
Certegy, Inc. -
International Check Services -
Call SCAN (1-800-262-7771) to find out if the identity thief has been
passing bad checks in your name.
3. File a report with your local police or the police in the
community where the identity theft took place.
Keep a copy of the report. You may need it to validate your claims to
creditors. If you can't get a copy, at least get the report number.
4. File a complaint with the FTC.
to file a complaint instantly, obtain a copy of the ID Theft Affidavit and get
answers to frequently asked questions about identity theft. If you don't have
access to the Internet, call the FTC's Identity Theft Hotline, toll-free, at
1-877-IDTHEFT (438-4338). Your complaint will be entered into a secure consumer
fraud database, accessible only to law enforcement agencies, for use in pursuing
The FTC enters the information you provide into our secure database – the
Identity Theft Clearinghouse – and it is shared with our attorneys and
investigators. It also may be shared with employees of various federal, state,
or local law enforcement or regulatory authorities. We also may share
information with certain private entities, such as credit bureaus and any
companies you may have complained about when we believe that doing so might help
resolve identity theft-related problems. You may be contacted by the FTC or any
of the agencies or private entities to which your complaint has been referred.
In other limited circumstances, including requests from Congress, we may be
required by law to disclose information you submit.
You have the option to submit your information anonymously. However, if you
do not provide your name and contact information, law enforcement and other
entities will not be able to contact you for additional information to assist in
their investigations and
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