Have you seen that movie, “Catch Me if You Can?” You know, the one where the main character, played by Leonardo DiCaprio travels the world pretending to be people and things that he’s not? That was a fun movie, right? But Leonardo was playing an identity thief.
Now what if Leo pretended to be you, opened credit cards in your name, and racked up $100,000 in credit card debt at Nordstrom’s? Not so much fun anymore, for you at least.
Identity theft happens when someone uses your personal information like your name, Social Security Number, bank and credit card account numbers, or address, to steal from you or create new accounts in your name without your permission. Identity theft can ruin your credit rating and theft-related issues may take months – or even years – to resolve and repair. Below are some answers to frequently asked questions about identity theft.
I’m me, how can my identity get stolen?
ID thieves steal wallets, phones, purses, laptops, and briefcases to gain access to credit cards, driver’s license, passport, and other personal documents. They look for personal data by going through trash. This is also known as “dumpster diving.” They also steal mail, including your bank statements, pre-approved credit card offers, new checks, and tax information. They pose as legitimate companies or government agencies via phone, e-mail, or mail in order to get personal information. They use personal information that was shared on the Internet.
Through an e-mail attachment that was opened or downloaded, they may release a virus on a computer. The resulting program records what is typed and the Web sites visited and allow the thief to acquire personal information. Identity thieves are unfortunately often someone familiar, such as a roommate, relative, or friend with whom your personal information was shared.
How do I know if my I have been a victim of identity theft?
- Check your credit reports frequently. Most identity thieves will try to open new accounts, such as a credit card, in your name. When this happens, the credit report reflects that a new “account” was opened. You should check your credit report on a regular basis so that you can see if there are any unrecognizable accounts that were opened in your name. You are entitled to one free credit report from each bureau each year available only at www.annualcreditreport.com. There are three major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and Transunion. This is the only legitimately free credit report site. Other sites offering “free” reports usually only do so by enrolling you in a program with a monthly fee. If you request one report from a different company each your, you can get an up to date credit report every four months.
- Check your Bank and Credit card statements for unexplained withdrawals and charges. Identity thieves can tap into your accounts by taking money from a bank account or making a purchase with a credit card. Read through your statements carefully and call your bank or credit card company right away if there are any questionable withdrawals or purchases or items you don’t recognize.
- You haven’t received bills, statements, or other important mail in a long time. Identity thieves sometimes call the bank, credit card company, or lender to change the mailing address. This allows them to run up charges without your notice for a while since you are not receiving statements in the mail. Many reputable companies will now contact you if someone requests that an account address be changed. Be sure to read all mail from your bank and credit card companies carefully, and to return their phone calls.
- You’ve received calls from debt collection agencies about products or services you didn’t buy. Thieves can use personal information to apply for loans or a credit card in your own name. This usually leads to unpaid bills that a debt collection agency will try to collect from you.
How can I protect myself from identity theft?
Thieves can be quite sneaky when it comes to finding ways to steal an identity. Below are quick tips to protect yourself and your money.
- Don’t give out personal information to someone you don’t know. Thieves can pretend to be bank representatives, internet service providers, and government agents to get you to reveal personal information. Never give out personal information without verifying that it is a legitimate request first, especially when it’s being requested over the phone or online. If someone says they’re calling from your bank, hang up, call the bank back, and ask if they need to speak with you.
- Shred important documents. Identity thieves look through people’s trash to gather personal information. You should use a cross-cut shredder to shred documents that contain personal information before throwing them away. Strip-cut shredders do not offer the protection cross-cut shredders do – some thieves have taken bags of strip shredded documents and pieced them back together to obtain personal information.
- Protect credit and debit cards. Credit and debit cards provide direct access to your cash and identity, so you should keep them in a secure place and follow these tips:
- Whenever you receive a new card, sign your name in black pen (it’s required for acceptance at places like the US Post Office and many credit companies may not honor ID theft protection if you do not sign it) then write in red “ASK FOR ID.” This way, whenever your credit card is used to buy something, the cashier will need to confirm the identity of the person using the card.
- Destroy old credit cards by shredding or cutting them up.
- Don’t lend credit cards to anyone.
- After using a credit card, make sure you get your card back, and that the card you get back is yours. For example, if you give a credit card to a waiter in a restaurant, you should check that the credit card returned is your own.
- Protect the information you enter in a computer. To prevent your information from being stolen, you should ensure that your computer has appropriate anti-virus software that will detect and prevent viruses. When letting other people use your computer, you should make sure any personal files are locked with a password and that you are logged off of any online accounts. In addition, if you are using a public computer (at a library, copy center, or cyber café), do not enter any personal information. If you absolutely must, make sure you clear the cache and history so that information is not left on the computer. Watch out for autofill as well.
- Choose passwords carefully. If your password or PIN# falls into the wrong hands, you may be in danger of identity theft. Learn to use a “strong” password.
- Opt out of pre‐screened credit offers. You can do this by calling 888‐5OPT‐OUT or www.optoutprescreen.com
- Register with the do not call registry at www.donotcall.gov
- Learn more about the types of scams you should watch out for at www.lookstoogoodtobetrue.com and www.dfi.wa.gov/consumers/alerts.htm
REMEMBER: IF SOMETHING SEEMS TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE, IT VERY LIKELY IS.
Watch out for Identity theft protection offers
Be wary of credit card insurance programs that claim to protect against charges incurred due to identity theft. Most of the time, these policies provide no more protection than is afforded to each consumer under the law for free. If your card is lost or stolen and used without your permission, you are generally not held responsible for unauthorized charges exceeding $50 as long as you report the card missing immediately. Of course, some reputable companies do provide legitimate identity theft protection and recovery services, and depending how important it is to you to protect your identity, sometimes it will be worth paying for such coverage.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU ARE VICTIM OF IDENTITY THEFT:
If you are victims of identity theft, act fast to protect your name and credit by following these steps so you can prevent any further abuse:
- Place a fraud alert on your credit report with all three major credit bureaus. If you place a fraud alert on your credit report, creditors must contact you before opening any new accounts or making any changes to your existing accounts. As soon as the credit bureau you’ve contacted confirms the fraud alert, the other two credit bureaus will automatically be notified to place fraud alerts on your accounts with them. All three credit bureaus will send you your credit report free of charge. The contact information for the three major credit bureaus is:
Equifax: P.O. Box 740241 Atlanta, GA 30374-0241 1-800-525-6285 www.equifax.com
Experian: P.O. Box 9532 Allen, TX 75013 1-888-EXPERIAN (397-3742) www.experian.com
TransUnion: Fraud Victim Assistance Division P.O. Box 6790 Fullerton, CA 92834-6790 1-800-680-7289 www.transunion.com
- Close all fraudulent accounts. Call and speak with someone in the security or fraud department of each company where a fraudulent account was opened in your name. Close all these accounts. Most likely they will ask you to follow up in writing so that there is a written record for your file. Be sure to do this. If there’s no written record of a request for action by a company, you may not be able to prove you made one if an error occurs. Some companies, especially credit card companies, will ask you to sign an affidavit saying you did not make any purchases. Once the affidavit is signed, they cannot hold you responsible for purchases or charge you more than $50 to erase the fraudulent debts on the account. Remember to send all correspondence via certified mail, return receipt requested, and keep copies of it. If you do not have to follow up in writing, ask them to send you a written confirmation that the accounts were closed.
- File a police report. File a police report and get a copy of the report to submit to your creditors and others who may require proof of the crime. Work with your local prosecutor to provide information and assistance if and when requested to do so.
- To ensure no one can open a line of credit, you may wish to obtain a security freeze. Find details on requesting a freeze at: http://www.atg.wa.gov/freezecharts.aspx. Identity theft victims and adults ages 65 and older are able to place a freeze for free. Consumers who aren’t entitled to a free freeze pay up to $10 per bureau. You will be given PIN # to unfreeze your credit if you need to allow a credit check or to obtain credit.
- File a complaint with the Washington AG’s Office at www.atg.wa.gov
- If the crime was committed on the Internet, file a complaint with the Internet Crime Complaint Center at http://www.ic3.gov.
- Contact the Washington Office of Crime Victims Advocacy for assistance at (800) 822‐1067 Hotline or www.ocva.wa.gov