Criminals have advanced their techniques beyond stealing purses and now simply call on the telephone or send e-mails to people, asking for personal information about bank accounts and credit cards. However, there are ways to avoid becoming a victim of identity theft, advises the Minnesota Department of Commerce.
In one of the most common telephone, mail and e-mail scams, the thief poses as an individual's bank and needs to verify a statement -- all they need is the PIN or password for the account, which then allows the thief to make withdrawals. In other scams, it's an overseas company with a "sure-thing" business proposal or with an investment opportunity offer for a foreign business partner; the thief asks for a bank account number in which to deposit the "investment funds," however once they have the information they start making withdrawals.
In most cases a person doesn't know they are a victim of identity theft until they are turned down for a loan, get a phone call from a collection agency, or are contacted by the police. Identity theft increased in the 1990s, which led to a new federal law called the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act of 1998. The law makes it a federal crime for someone to use information about another person, including their name, Social Security Number, credit card or other personal information to commit fraud.
There are steps consumers can take to minimize their risk and protect themselves from becoming victims of "identity theft."
Do not give personal information over the phone or email. Most businesses that need bank account information, passwords or credit card numbers already have all the information they need and will not call or email a request for more information.
Check your credit report once a year. Credit reports show your credit history, including the number of loan requests and whether it's for credit cards, auto loans or mortgages. Make sure the report is accurate, and write a letter noting any mistakes. There are three major credit bureaus that provide credit reports for a nominal fee, and there may be variations in each report: Equifax, 800-685-1111, Experian, 888-EXPERIAN, and Trans Union, 800-916-8800.
Pay attention to billing cycles. Follow up with creditors if bills don't arrive on time. An identity thief may have changed your billing address and started to use the credit card.
Take your receipts. If a store payment is made by credit card, some receipts list the full card number. Do not dispose of the receipt in a public place. At home, either file necessary receipts or cross out the card number and shred the receipt.
Have new checks delivered to the bank. This will eliminate an opportunity for a thief to steal them from your mailbox. If they are delivered to your mailbox, be sure that the package has not been tampered with and that individual checks are not missing.
Use passwords whenever possible. Avoid using passwords that contain easily available information like your mother's maiden name, your birth date or the last four digits of your Social Security Number. Use a different password for each account. Do not store written passwords in purses or wallets where credit cards are kept.
Minimize the amount of personal information you carry. Many people have several credit cards, including cards for individual retailers; carry them in your purse or wallet only when necessary. Do not store Social Security cards, passports or birth certificates in purses or wallets unless necessary. Consider canceling credit cards that are rarely used.
Write down credit card names and numbers and store them in a safe place. It's important to cancel your credit cards immediately if they've been stolen, but the key is having the toll free numbers and credit card numbers handy so you know who to call. It also helps to have a list of all credit cards in one place.
Guard the mailbox from theft. Deposit bill payments at the post office or in post office collection boxes. If going on vacation, ask the post office to hold your mail until you return.
Tear up junk mail. If you receive pre-screened credit card or mortgage offers in the mail, tear them up if you decide not to accept the offer. In a method called "dumpster diving," thieves scour trash bins for personal information.
Reduce the amount of junk mail you receive. Pre-screened credit card offers are an easy target for identity thieves. To opt out of receiving pre-screened credit card offers, call: 1-888-5-OPTOUT (1-888-567- 8688). To remove your name from other national direct mail lists, write: Direct Marketing Association, P.O. Box 9008, Farmingdale, NY 11735-9008.
Only use secure Internet sites for e-commerce. When banking online or shopping with a credit card, most sites will note when you enter or exit a secure connection. Look for a small yellow "padlock" in the toolbar and "https" in the web address.
It's important to simply know who you are dealing with. Do not give out personal information over the phone, through the mail or over the Internet unless you have initiated the contact. Legitimate organizations that you do business with already have the information they need and will not ask you for it.