Personal information can be vulnerable to theft and misuse, with identity theft now one of the fastest growing crimes in the United States.
Identity thieves use a variety of methods to obtain and misuse your personal information, using information such as your birthdate and Social Security number to exploit your existing accounts or open new accounts in your name. Clearing your name of fraudulent charges can take both time and money. Being educated on ways to prevent and handle identity theft should it occur will help you avoid being a victim of this crime.
Thieves use a variety of technologies and methods to obtain your information. Identity thieves may:
- Steal a purse or wallet, personal information from the victim's home, or business information from the workplace.
- Take financial statements, credit card applications, canceled checks, and tax information from mailboxes.
- Divert your mail to a different address.
- Look through your mail for personal data that has been thrown away unshredded.
- Pose as a landlord or employer to obtain your credit report.
- Eavesdrop at ATMs for PINs and card numbers.
- "Phish" for account information via email.
- Record or capture your card numbers and expiration dates while they process your card at a restaurant or retail store. This practice is often called "skimming."
There are a number of steps you can take to help avoid becoming a victim of identity theft.
- Examine your financial statements. Save check stubs, credit, debit and ATM receipts. Shred them when you no longer need them.
- Report discrepancies between your records and monthly statements to the appropriate company.
- Do not carry more credit cards than you will use, your Social Security card, or other nonessential information. Don't give out your Social Security number unless absolutely necessary and for a legitimate purpose.
- Destroy blank checks from closed accounts and expired credit cards.
- Guard your purse or wallet. Thieves often target unoccupied vehicles, unlocked office areas, and health club locker rooms.
- Shred or tear up preapproved credit card offers before you throw them away.
- Check your mail. If you haven't received any mail in several days, you may be the victim of mail diversion fraud.
- Order a copy of your credit report each year from one of the major credit bureaus. You may order a free credit report annually at www.annualcreditreport.com.
- Place passwords on credit card, bank, and phone accounts. Try to use different passwords for different accounts.
- Secure personal information at home.
- Ask about information security procedures in your workplace.
- Don't give out sensitive information on the phone, through mail, or online unless self-initiated. Before revealing personal information, ask why it is needed, how it will be used, and if it will be shared with others.
- Be wary of promotional scams.
- Don't keep your personal identification numbers (PINs) or access codes with your credit and debit cards.
- Take precautions to secure all personal information stored in your computer.