Identity theft is a serious crime. Simply put, it is the act of having personal information stolen and used against you by identity thieves to obtain credit cards, loans, cell phone contracts, etc. in your name and make large purchases. When the time comes to pay the bills, identity thieves disappear, leaving their victims deep in debt with their credit history destroyed.
With just a few key numbers- name, birth date, Social Security number- identity thieves can wreak havoc on their victims' lives. Often, it takes victims months, if not years, to straighten out the mess by completing notarized affidavits, sending letters and faxes to creditors, and navigating numerous automated phone systems. The average identity theft victim spends about 175 hours correcting their credit history and over $800 for photocopying and other expenses.
Unfortunately, no matter how careful people are, they may not be able to completely reduce the risk of identity theft. It has become increasingly clear during the past few years that identity theft crimes are becoming more sophisticated. Instead of stealing the identity of one or two people at a time by raking through garbage or stealing wallets, identity thieves are increasingly obtaining the names of victims in large batches by buying them from "insiders" with access to databases containing sensitive personal information.
In a recent high-profile case, computer passwords were stolen, providing access to account data that was reportedly sold to street criminals for about $60 per victim. Workers with concerns about the security of their personal information at work are advised to talk to their employer about identity theft risks and request that the employer provide limited access to data by key employees only.
There are also ways to manage personal information cautiously to reduce the risk of becoming an identity theft victim:
· Guard your mail from theft. Deposit outgoing mail in collection boxes or at the post office and remove incoming mail promptly, after it has been delivered, or rent a post office box.
· Pay attention to billing cycles and contact creditors promptly if bills don't arrive on time.
· Minimize the number of credit cards and financial data (e.g., checkbook) carried around.
· Leave your Social security card at home. Avoid carrying any ID card containing a Social Security number (SSN). Instead, make a copy of the card and white out the SSN.
· Do not give out personal information via mail or phone unless you initiate the contact.
· Be cautious about where you leave personal information in your home, where it can be misused by contractors, babysitters, roommates, and even estranged family members.
· Order a credit report from each of the major credit reporting agencies every year to check for errors and evidence of identity theft. Six states (Colorado, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Vermont) require the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) to provide their residents with at least one free credit report per year. In other states, the cost is about $9. Free credit reports are also available anytime, anywhere if you believe you have been a victim of fraud, if you are unemployed or receiving public assistance, or if you have been denied credit or employment within 60 days due to information contained in your credit file.