ID Theft: What's It All About?

ID Theft: What's It All About?
Dear Consumer:
The Federal Trade Commission has
published this booklet to help raise
consumer awareness of identity theft.
If you or someone you know is a victim of
identity theft, please visit The information you enter there becomes part of a
secure database that’s used by law
enforcement officials across the nation to
help stop identity thieves. The site also has
links to useful information from other
federal agencies, states and consumer
You also may want to call 1-877-ID
THEFT, the FTC’s toll-free ID Theft
Hotline, where counselors help consumers
who want or need more information about
dealing with the consequences of identity
We encourage you to share this booklet
with your family, friends, colleagues, and
J. Howard Beales, III
Bureau of Consumer Protection
Federal Trade Commission
Letter to Consumers
Introduction .................................... 1
How Identity Theft Occurs ............... 2
How Can I Tell if I’m a Victim of
Identity Theft? ................................. 4
Managing Your Personal
Information .................................... 6
A Special Word About Social
Security Numbers ....................... 9
If Your Identity’s Been Stolen ......... 12
he 1990’s spawned a new variety of
crooks called identity thieves. Their
stock in trade? Your everyday transactions, which usually reveal bits of your
personal information: your bank and credit
card account numbers; your income; your
Social Security number (SSN); or your
name, address, and phone numbers. An
identity thief obtains some piece of your
sensitive information and uses it without
your knowledge to commit fraud or theft.
Identity theft is a serious crime. People
whose identities have been stolen can
spend months or years — and their hardearned money — cleaning up the mess the
thieves have made of their good name and
credit record. Some victims have lost job
opportunities, been refused loans for
education, housing or cars, or even been
arrested for crimes they didn’t commit.
Can you prevent identity theft from occurring? As with any crime, you cannot
completely control whether you will
become a victim. But, according to the
Federal Trade Commission (FTC), you can
minimize your risk by managing your
personal information cautiously and with
heightened sensitivity.
How Identity Theft
killed identity thieves use a variety of
methods to gain access to your personal information. For example:
• They get information from businesses or
other institutions by:
- stealing records from their employer,
- bribing an employee who has access
to these records, or
- hacking into the organization’s
• They rummage through your trash, or the
trash of businesses or dumps in a practice
known as “dumpster diving.”
• They obtain credit reports by abusing
their employer’s authorized access to
credit reports or by posing as a landlord,
employer, or someone else who may
have a legal right to the information.
• They steal credit and debit card numbers
as your card is processed by using a
special information storage device in a
practice known as “skimming.”
• They steal wallets and
purses containing identification and credit and bank
• They steal mail, including
bank and credit card
statements, pre-approved
credit offers, new checks,
or tax information.
• They complete a “change of
address form” to divert your
mail to another location.
• They steal personal information from
your home.
• They scam information from you by
posing as a legitimate business person or
government official.
Once identity thieves have your personal
information, they may:
• Go on spending sprees using your credit
and debit card account numbers to buy
“big-ticket” items like computers that
they can easily sell.
• Open a new credit card account, using
your name, date of birth, and SSN. When
they don’t pay the bills, the delinquent
account is reported on your credit report.
• Change the mailing address on your
credit card account. The imposter then
runs up charges on the account. Because
the bills are being sent to the new
address, it may take some time before
you realize there’s a problem.
• Take out auto loans in your name.
• Establish phone or wireless service in
your name.
• Counterfeit checks or debit cards, and
drain your bank account.
• Open a bank account in your name and
write bad checks on that account.
• File for bankruptcy under your name to
avoid paying debts they’ve incurred, or
to avoid eviction.
• Give your name to the police during an
arrest. If they are released and don’t
show up for their court date, an arrest
warrant could be issued in your name.
How Can I Tell if I’m a
Victim of Identity
onitor the balances of your financial
accounts. Look for unexplained
charges or withdrawals. Other indications
of identity theft can be:
• failing to receive bills or other mail
signaling an address change by the
identity thief;
• receiving credit cards for which you did
not apply;
• denial of credit for no apparent reason; or
• receiving calls from debt collectors or
companies about merchandise or services
you didn’t buy.
If an identity thief is opening new credit
accounts in your name, these accounts are
likely to show up on your credit report.
You can find out by ordering a copy of
your credit report from any of three major
credit bureaus. If you find inaccurate
information, check your reports from the
other two credit bureaus. Of course, some
inaccuracies on your credit reports may be
because of computer, clerical, or other
errors and may not be a result of identity
theft. Note: If your personal information
has been lost or stolen, you may want to
check all of your reports more frequently
for the first year. Federal law allows credit
bureaus to charge you up to $9 for a copy
of your credit report. Some states may
allow a free report or reduced rates.
To order your credit reports:
Equifax –
Experian –
1-888-EXPERIAN (397-3742)
TransUnion –
Managing Your
Personal Information
o how can a responsible consumer
minimize the risk of identity theft, as
well as the potential for damage? When it
involves your personal information, exercise caution and prudence.
Place passwords on your credit card, bank
and phone accounts. Avoid using easily
available information like your mother’s
maiden name, your birth date, the last four
digits of your SSN or your phone number,
or a series of consecutive numbers. When
you’re asked for your mother’s maiden
name on an application for a new account,
try using a password instead.
Secure personal information in your home,
especially if you have roommates, employ
outside help, or are having
service work done in
your home.
Ask about information security procedures
in your workplace. Find out who has
access to your personal information and
verify that your records are kept in a
secure location. Ask about the disposal
procedures for those records as well.
Don’t give out personal information on the
phone, through the mail, or over the
Internet unless you’ve initiated the contact
or are sure you know who you’re dealing
with. Identity thieves can be skilled liars,
and may pose as representatives of banks,
Internet service providers (ISPs), or even
government agencies to get you to reveal
identifying information. Before you
divulge any personal information, confirm
that you’re dealing with a legitimate
representative of a legitimate organization.
Double check by calling customer service
using the number on your account statement or in the telephone book.
Guard your mail and trash from theft.
Deposit outgoing mail in post office
collection boxes or at your local post office
instead of an unsecured mailbox. Remove
mail from your mailbox promptly. If
you’re planning to be away from home and
can’t pick up your mail, call the U.S.
Postal Service at 1-800-275-8777 to ask
for a vacation hold. To thwart a thief who
may pick through your trash or recycling
bins, tear or shred your charge receipts,
copies of credit applications or offers,
insurance forms, physician statements,
checks and bank statements, and expired
charge cards.
Before revealing any identifying information (for example, on an application), ask
how it will be used and secured, and
whether it will be shared with others. Find
out if you have a say about the use of your
information. For example, can you choose
to have it kept confidential?
Keep your Social Security card in a secure
place and give your SSN only when absolutely necessary. Ask to use other types of
identifiers when possible. If your state
uses your SSN as your driver’s license
number, ask to substitute another number.
Limit the identification information and the
number of credit and debit cards that you
carry to what you’ll actually need.
Keep your purse or wallet in a safe place
at work.
Your computer can be a goldmine of
personal information to an identity thief.
Here’s how you can safeguard your computer and the personal information it
• Update your virus protection software
regularly. Computer viruses can have
damaging effects, including introducing
program code that causes your computer
to send out files or other stored
A Special Word About
Social Security Numbers
Very likely, your employer and
financial institution will need your
SSN for wage and tax reporting
purposes. Other private businesses
may ask you for your SSN to do a
credit check, such as when you
apply for a car loan. Sometimes,
however, they simply want your SSN
for general record keeping. If
someone asks for your SSN, ask the
following questions:
• Why do you need it?
• How will it be used?
• How do you protect it from
being stolen?
• What will happen if I don’t
give it to you?
If you don’t provide your SSN, some
businesses may not provide you
with the service or benefit you want.
Getting satisfactory answers to your
questions will help you to decide
whether you want to share your
SSN with the business.
information. Look for security repairs
and patches you can download from your
operating system’s Web site.
• Don’t download files from strangers or
click on hyperlinks from people you
don’t know. Opening a file could expose
your system to a computer virus or a
program that could hijack your modem.
• Use a firewall, especially if you have a
high-speed or “always on” connection to
the Internet. The firewall allows you to
limit uninvited access to your computer.
Without a firewall, hackers can take over
your computer and access sensitive
• Use a secure browser — software that
encrypts or scrambles information you
send over the Internet — to guard the
safety of your online transactions. When
you’re submitting information, look for
the “lock” icon on the status bar. It’s a
symbol that your information is secure
during transmission.
• Try not to store financial information on
your laptop unless absolutely necessary.
If you do, use a “strong” password —
that is, a combination of letters (upper
and lower case), numbers, and symbols.
Avoid using an automatic log-in feature
that saves your user name and password;
and always log off when you’re finished.
If your laptop gets stolen, the thief will
have a hard time accessing sensitive
• Delete any personal information stored
on your computer before you dispose of
it. Use a “wipe” utility program, which
overwrites the entire hard drive and
makes the files unrecoverable.
• Read Web site privacy policies. They
should answer questions about the access
to and accuracy, security, and control of
personal information the site collects, as
well as how sensitive information will be
used, and whether it will be provided to
third parties.
If Your Identity’s Been
ven if you’ve been very careful about
keeping your personal information to
yourself, an identity thief can strike. If you
suspect that your personal information has
been used to commit fraud or theft, take
the following four steps right away.
Remember to follow up all calls in writing;
send your letter by certified mail, return
receipt requested, so you can document
what the company received and when; and
keep copies for your files.
1. Place a fraud alert on your credit
reports and review your credit
Call the toll-free fraud number of any
one of the three major credit bureaus to
place a fraud alert on your credit report.
This can help prevent an identity thief
from opening additional accounts in
your name. As soon as the credit bureau
confirms your fraud alert, the other two
credit bureaus will automatically be
notified to place fraud alerts on your
credit report, and all three reports will
be sent to you free of charge.
• Equifax — To report fraud, call:
1-800-525-6285, and write: P.O. Box
740241, Atlanta, GA 30374-0241
• Experian — To report fraud, call:
1-888-EXPERIAN (397-3742), and
write: P.O. Box 9532, Allen, TX 75013
• TransUnion — To report fraud, call:
1-800-680-7289, and write: Fraud
Victim Assistance Division, P.O. Box
6790, Fullerton, CA 92834-6790
Once you receive your reports, review
them carefully. Look for inquiries you
didn’t initiate, accounts you didn’t open,
and unexplained debts on your true
accounts. You also should check that
information such as your SSN,
address(es), name or initial, and employers are correct. Inaccuracies in this
information also may be due to typographical errors. Nevertheless, whether
the inaccuracies are due to fraud or
error, you should notify the credit
bureau as soon as possible by telephone
and in writing. You should continue to
check your reports periodically, especially in the first year after you’ve
discovered the theft, to make sure no
new fraudulent activity has occurred.
The automated “one-call” fraud alert
process only works for the initial placement of your fraud alert. Orders for
additional credit reports or renewals of
your fraud alerts must be made separately at each of the three major credit
2. Close any accounts that have been
tampered with or opened
Credit Accounts
Credit accounts include all accounts
with banks, credit card companies and
other lenders, and phone companies,
utilities, ISPs, and other service
If you’re closing existing accounts and
opening new ones, use new Personal
Identification Numbers (PINs) and
If there are fraudulent charges or debits,
ask the company about the following
forms for disputing those transactions:
- For new unauthorized accounts, ask if
the company accepts the ID Theft
Affidavit (available at
affidavit.pdf). If they don’t, ask the
representative to send you the
company’s fraud dispute forms.
- For your existing accounts, ask the
representative to send you the
company’s fraud dispute forms.
- If your ATM card has been lost, stolen
or otherwise compromised, cancel the
card as soon as you can. Get a new
card with a new PIN.
If your checks have been stolen or
misused, close the account and ask your
bank to notify the appropriate check
verification service. While no federal
law limits your losses if someone steals
your checks and forges your signature,
state laws may protect you. Most states
hold the bank responsible for losses from
a forged check, but they also require you
to take reasonable care of your account.
For example, you may be held responsible for the forgery if you fail to notify
the bank in a timely way that a check
was lost or stolen. Contact your state
banking or consumer protection agency
for more information.
You also should contact these major
check verification companies. Ask that
retailers who use their databases not
accept your checks.
TeleCheck —
1-800-710-9898 or 927-0188
Certegy, Inc. —
International Check Services —
Call SCAN (1-800-262-7771) to find
out if the identity thief has been passing
bad checks in your name.
3. File a report with your local police or
the police in the community where the
identity theft took place.
Keep a copy of the report. You may
need it to validate your claims to creditors. If you can’t get a copy, at least get
the report number.
4. File a complaint with the FTC.
By sharing your identity theft complaint
with the FTC, you will provide important information that can help law
enforcement officials track down identity
thieves and stop them. The FTC also
can refer victim complaints to other
appropriate government agencies and
companies for further action. The FTC
enters the information you provide into
our secure database.
To file a complaint or to learn more
about the FTC’s Privacy Policy, visit If you don’t
have access to the Internet, you can call
the FTC’s Identity Theft Hotline: tollfree 1-877-IDTHEFT (438-4338); TDD:
202-326-2502; or write: Identity Theft
Clearinghouse, Federal Trade Commission, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW,
Washington, DC 20580.
1-877-ID-THEFT (1-877-438-4338)
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