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What is identity theft?

Learn how identity theft happens and get important prevention tips.

Protecting personal information such as one's Social Security number is a necessary step in preventing identity theft. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
Protecting personal information such as one's Social Security number is a necessary step in preventing identity theft.

Identity theft occurs when someone’s personal information, such as Social Security number or credit card, is used without his or her consent. Identity thieves use this information to charge purchases on the stolen credit cards, open new accounts, get jobs or rent apartments, all of which are a federal offenses, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. This article provides detailed information about how identity theft happens, what to do if you’re a victim and how to prevent it.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), a government agency that oversees consumer protection, reports that there are about nine million cases of identity theft per year in the United States.

Types of Identity Theft

There are several forms of identity theft, all of which constitute federal fraud. The different types of identity theft are:

  • Credit card fraud: A victim’s credit card is stolen, or a new card is opened in his or her name. Often, the cards are maxed out and the victim is unaware that his or her credit is being affected.
  • Finance fraud: A thief opens a bank account in the victim’s name and writes counterfeit checks or takes out a loan. Also, stolen ATM cards are vulnerable to finance fraud because the account can be drained.
  • Utility fraud: An identity thief opens new phone, electricity, water, gas or cable accounts.
  • Document fraud: A victim's government-issued document, such as a state-issued identification or passport, is used to get new identification or government benefits. This information is also used to get a job, rent a home or get medical treatment.
  • Tax fraud: A thief uses stolen information to file a tax return.
  • Arrest fraud: An identity thief uses your information during an arrest.

How Identity Theft Works

Dumpster diving and theft are two of the most common ways identity is stolen.

Personal information is obtained by simply looking through the garbage for receipts and bills or by purse-snatching and mail theft.

Identity thieves can also use more sophisticated tactics to access personal information.

The most common methods are:

  • Pretexting, or pretending to be an official or financial institution asking for personal information.
  • Phishing, or impersonating a bank or other financial institution online by sending fake e-mails or pop-up messages asking for personal information.
  • Skimming, or storing credit numbers when swiping a credit card.
  • Obtaining classified personnel files from work.
  • Changing a credit card or bank statement billing address.

What to do if You Fall Victim to Identity Theft

If a person’s identity is stolen, speedy action and organization is key.

The first and most important steps to take once identity theft is suspected is to place a fraud alert on credit reports. This requires creditors to take special precautions to verify a person’s identity before issuing credit. A fraud alert can be an initial, or 90-day, alert and is most suitable for victims of “phishing” or theft. There is also an extended fraud alert that stays on a credit report for seven years. The FTC offers more details about fraud alerts.

Close the accounts that have been corrupted by calling the respective company’s fraud department. Also, theFTC recommends following up the phone call with a statement in writing. It’s also important to get written statements from all financial institutions involved.

Identity theft victims should also file complaints with their local police department and with the FTC.

Additionally, victims should contact their local Social Security Administration office to address stolen Social Security number issues. In some cases, the administration may issue a new number.

Identity Theft Prevention

The FTC recommends tracking back accounts and statements frequently for inaccuracies or anomalies, and monitoring credit reports annually, if not more often, for suspicious activity. On top of that, there are preventative measures you can take to assure the safety of your identity.

  • Limit the use of debit cards, which are linked to finite checking accounts.
  • Shred documents with personal information, including any financial documents, before throwing them away.
  • Don’t carry your Social Security card in your wallet or write your Social Security number on your checks. Instead, keep all important documents at home in a safe place.

There are also ways to keep personal information safe online. The FTC advises against revealing any personal information over the phone, online or through the mail unless you’re sure it’s a legitimate company or request.

In addition, don’t click on links embedded in e-mails from people you don’t know. And make online passwords hard to guess. Don’t use common information, such as your own birthday.

Remember that prevention is key. Be sure to keep close track of all of your financial records and to keep personal documents and information as secure as possible. To learn more about identity theft and identity theft prevention, visit the FTC’s Identity Theft Web site.

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