Identity theft is on the rise. Someone can steal your identity by taking your name, Social Security number, credit card number or some other piece of your personal information without you ever knowing it. Thieves then apply for credit cards in your name, at a different address. You won't know what's happened until the bills start to roll in.
A thief could call your credit card issuer and, pretending to be you, change the mailing address on your credit card account. Then, your impostor runs up charges on your account. Because your bills are being sent to the new address, you may not realize there's a problem. But when the thief doesn't pay the bills, the delinquent account goes on your credit report.
It's hard to keep all your numbers and pass codes private. What's most important to keep to yourself, and how can you do that?
Steps to take if you are a victim of identity theft—calling the credit card company and the FTC, Web sites and numbers that can help.
Fraud is another way to have your identity stolen. How to protect yourself from mail and e-mail fraud.
It's impossible for you to keep all your information private. Every time you go to a doctor, your insurance card and drivers license is photocopied and available to anyone who opens your folder. At a restaurant, your credit card is taken away and returned some time later, with copies easily made. If you write checks to pay your credit cards, you may write your credit card number on the check, which is seen by any number of people who handle the check. You can't eliminate opportunities for identity theft, but you can make it much harder for the thief.
Put a password on your credit card accounts. Use a password that is different from your mother's maiden name. Your mother's maiden name can be found on your credit report, and other people can obtain a copy of this report just by saying you are going to rent some property from them.
Who needs to know? Always question the information-gathering and handling practices of merchants, creditors, government agencies, employers, educational institutions and others—ask yourself if they really have a valid need for the information they are requesting. Don't automatically fill out every blank on every application.
Keep your numbers to yourself. Don't put credit card numbers on checks or envelopes. Don't give account numbers over the phone unless you made the call. Always tear up or shred pre-approved credit card applications before throwing them away.
Check your statement. Check your billing statements each month for fraudulent charges and report them immediately. If you do not receive your statement on time, someone may be using a fraudulent change of address. Call the creditor first and then the post office to see if a change of address has been filed in your name.
Ask for a credit report. Under federal law you are entitled to a free credit report from each of the three main credit bureaus—Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Ask for a copy of your credit report once a year from www.annualcreditreport.com to check for changed addresses and fraudulent account information. Unless you've had your identity stolen in the past two years, there is no need to purchase automatic credit monitoring services if you obtain your free copies every year.
Actions to Report as You Recover from Identity Theft
If someone has stolen your identity, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recommends that you take three actions immediately:
Contact the fraud departments of each of the three major credit bureaus. Tell them to flag your file with a fraud alert, including a statement that creditors should get your permission before opening any new accounts in your name. In a few months, order new copies of your reports to verify your corrections and changes and to make sure no new fraudulent activity has occurred.
Contact the creditors and tell them if your account has been tampered with or opened fraudulently. Ask to speak with someone in the security or fraud department. After your conversation, follow up in writing—its required by the Fair Credit Billing Act for resolving errors on credit billing statements, including charges that you have not made.
File a report with your local police or the police in the community where the identity theft took place. Keep a copy in case your creditors need proof of the crime.
Filing a complaint with the FTC
If you've been a victim of identity theft, file a complaint with the FTC by contacting the FTC's Identity Theft Hotline by telephone: toll-free
Tips to Protect Your Identity
The information these scam artists want includes:
Besides the money for which you may be held liable, it takes time—100 hours or more—to clean up your credit.
The single most important piece of advice is that you should never disclose any personal information unless you initiate a service.
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If you wonder if that telemarketing offer is too good to be true, it probably is. The FTC compiled seven of the most common consumer scams. Read about them and how to protect yourself.
Most consumer scams involve the use of the telephone and can include making unauthorized long-distance phone calls and illegally obtaining credit card numbers and bank account PINs. There are many different kinds of scams that involve telephone services. Here are seven to watch out for:
"Slamming" is when your long-distance telephone service is switched to another company without your permission. Look at your phone bill carefully. If a different long-distance company is listed, call your local phone company to find out how to get switched back with no fee and how to be rebilled at your original long-distance company's rates. Instruct your carrier to block any changes or to require written authorization or direct confirmation.
"Cramming" occurs when monthly charges appear on your telephone bill for optional services that you never authorized, such as voice mail, paging, a personal 800 number, or club membership. Like slamming, it can happen by filling out a contest entry form, failing to respond to a negative-option sales pitch, or calling a 900 number.
Toll fraud occurs when someone charges his or her long-distance calls to your number. If your calling card is stolen, or someone looks over your shoulder at a pay phone, your account number can be used to make calls all over the world. In another toll-fraud scam, you receive a call from someone pretending to be from a phone company or a government agency, claiming to be investigating a phone problem and asking you to accept charges for a call. No legitimate company or agency would ask you to do this. Hang up immediately.
Claims of savings by using "dial-around" access numbers may be phony. Those seven-digit numbers that you can dial to get around your regular long-distance phone company to save money could result in higher charges, not lower, if there are added fees or calling minimums.
Not all 800 numbers are toll-free. You can be charged for calling an 800 number if you have agreed to it in advance. But some consumers are tricked into being charged for 800 numbers by following instructions to dial "personal activation codes" that are really access codes linking them to "pay-per-call" numbers, or by other means.
You may be lured into making an international call without realizing it. Some international phone numbers look very similar to U.S. numbers, but the charges can be far more. Or you might receive a message on your pager, your computer, or your telephone answering machine that there is a family emergency or that legal action on a debt is underway, along with an unfamiliar phone number to call. If you are unsure where a number is, ask the telephone operator before you dial.
Beware of fraudulent computer-generated phone charges. In the latest twist to phone frauds reported to the National Fraud Information Center (http://www.fraud.org), consumers who downloaded a program from a Web site on the Internet to view pictures later received huge phone bills for international calls they never made. Don't download programs from Web sites unless you know and trust them.
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