By Barbara Brady
Have you ordered a copy of your credit report lately? The Federal Trade Commission recommends that you do so once a year. The agency advises you to read it carefully and make sure it includes only transactions you have authorized. Unwanted charges or accounts you don’t recognize could be a sign of identity theft.
Identity Theft is a Growing Problem
Identity theft -- stealing personal information and using it to commit fraud or theft -- is a fast-growing problem. Since its inception November, 1999, the FTC's ID Theft Hotline (1-877-ID-THEFT) has 40,000 calls, nearly two-thirds of them involving complaints about identity theft. The most common complaints reported by consumers are:
· Credit card fraud -- 50% of callers report someone has opened or taken over a credit card account.
· Communications services/utility fraud -- 25% report identity thieves opening telephone or cellular service accounts or utility service accounts.
· Bank fraud -- 16% report fraudulent bank accounts and check writing.
· Fraudulent loans -- 9% report a thief taking out a loan in their name.
· Government documents/benefits – 8% reported problems with forged or fake "official" documents, such as driver's licenses, tax returns and the like
The FTC is attacking this problem on several fronts. Consumer support services include:
· The toll-free ID-THEFT hotline: 1-877-ID-THEFT (1-877-438-4338)
· A Web site at http://www.consumer.gov/idtheft
· A 21-page publication covering warning signs, prevention, and recovery measures. ID Theft: When Bad Things Happen To Your Good Name is available online at http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/pubs/credit/idtheft.htm.
To help law enforcement officials, the agency has created The Identity Theft Data Clearing House, a database of statistics gleaned from hotline calls. The FTC may release ID Theft data on a limited basis to businesses whose practices are frequently associated with identity theft.
How Thieves Operate
Skilled identity thieves use a variety of methods to appropriate your identity. Not all of them are high-tech. They may:
· Steal your wallet or purse.
· Steal bank statements, pre-approved credit applications and bills from your mail.
· Complete a "change of address" form at the post office and redirect your mail.
· Rummage through your trash.
· Pose as someone who's authorized to obtain your credit report.
· Get access to personnel records at work.
· Find personal information at your home.
· Use information you share on the Internet.
According to FTC hotline data, 60% of callers are able to provide some identifying information about their identity thief, including names, addresses or phone numbers. More than 25% of victims report that they personally know the thief.
Here are steps the FTC recommends to prevent identity theft:
· Don't reveal any personally identifying information until you know how it will be used and whether it will be shared. If you have a choice, keep it confidential.
· If your bills don't arrive on time, check with creditors and find out why.
· Guard your mail. Take outgoing mail to a mailbox or the post office. Remove mail from your mailbox as soon as possible after it's delivered.
· When choosing passwords for credit card, bank and phone accounts, avoid easily guessed information.
· Carry a minimum amount of ID and few credit cards in your purse of wallet.
· Share personal information by phone, mail or Internet only when you have initiated the contact or you know who you're dealing with.
· Tear up or shred charge receipts, copies of credit applications, insurance forms, bank checks and statements before you throw them away.
· Protect your personal information in your home, especially if you have roommates or employ outside help.
· Find out who has access to your personal information at work and verify that the records are kept in a secure location.
· Protect your Social Security number. Give it out only when absolutely necessary.
Getting Your Credit Report
The FTC recommends ordering all three reports. By law, you can be charged up to $8.50 per copy, but even if you pay the max, it could be the best $25.50 you spend.
The reason you want to check your credit report is to make sure no one is racking up charges by pretending to be you.