Identity theft is a serious problem that is getting worse every day.
According to a study commissioned by the Federal Trade Commission, last year alone, over 9.9 million Americans learned they'd been victims of identity theft, at a total cost of nearly $50 billion - an average of almost $5,000 per victim.
Even worse, if someone opened a new account today by fraudulently using your credit history, the study shows you could expect him to charge an average of over $10,000 before the crime is discovered. Then you could expect to spend an average of 60 hours, and hundred of dollars, trying to clear your name.
We are all vulnerable to identity theft. Our personal information is stored in databases everywhere. Efforts are made to protect these databases but only additional legislation can truly protect your identity. You can follow a few simple steps to make stealing your identity a little more difficult. While the steps below aren't a guarantee you won't become the victim of an identity theft, they will help you recognize some of the things you can do the help prevent this crime.
What can you do to protect yourself from becoming a victim?
- Don't give out your social security number to just anyone who asks. This is one of the most important items to an identity thief. Several places will accept the last 4 digits instead of the entire number--ask.
- Don't give personal information over the phone unless you initiated the call and you know the company or person at the other end. When it is necessary to give personal information, give only the minimum necessary.
- Never put your account information on the outside of an envelope or on a postcard.
- Check your credit report at least once a year. You might be able to catch any discrepancies before they become a major problem.
- Carry only the cards you actually need. Minimize the identification information and the number of cards you carry in your wallet or purse. Do not carry your Social Security card unless you need it.
- Cut up old or expired credit cards. Close all inactive credit card and bank accounts. Even though you do not use them, these accounts appear on your credit report and may be used by thieves.
- Monitor your credit card bills. Question any charges you don't recognize as your own. The best way to do this is to save your credit card slips and compare these with the charges on your bill.
- Monitor your checking account and question any activity you don't recognize as your own. As soon as you receive your bank statement, you should look at all the transactions and report any that are questionable.
- For your ATM card, choose a Personal Identification Number (PIN) different from your address, telephone number, middle name, the last four digits of your Social Security number, your birth date or any other information that could be easily discovered by thieves.
- Memorize your PIN; do not write it on your ATM card or keep it written on a piece of paper somewhere in your wallet. Statistics show that in many instances of ATM card fraud, cardholders wrote their PINs on their ATM cards or on slips of paper kept with their wallets or purses. Compare your ATM receipts and cashed checks with your periodic bank statements to check for unauthorized transfers or charges.
- Shred all papers with any of your identifying information before tossing them into the trash. This is especially important for the pre-approved credit cards we regularly receive in the mail. Keep personal information in a safe place. If you employ outside help or are having service work done in your home, keep your personal information out of sight.
- Never give your credit card number to strangers unless you are the one who initiated a purchase. This includes people who request this in person, by email, phone, or by other means.
- Your identity is a valuable asset. Guard it. Your identity in the wrong hands could ruin you and your good credit. Remember, if a person has your name, birthday, address, and social security number, they could be you to anyone who doesn't know you.
For more information in depth information on Identity Theft visit the Federal Trade Commission home page for Identity Theft at http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/menus/consumer/data/idt.stml If you feel you have been a victim of Identity Theft, contact your bank or the Federal Trade commission Identity Theft Hotline at 1-877-IDTHEFT (438-4338).