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How-Tuesday: How to Prevent + Respond to Identity Theft

What is Identity Theft?

Identity theft is "the fraudulent acquisition and use of a person's private identifying information, usually for financial gain."1 In other words, someone who is not you using your information to better their situation, often leaving you in debt and your personal records – like your credit score - in bad shape.

But he that filches from me my good name / Robs me of that which not enriches him / And makes me poor indeed.

- Shakespeare, Othello, act iii. Sc. 3.

Prevent Identity Theft | Image source: / Photographer: Brian A Jackson

Your name and address are enough to cause some damage, but toss in your social security number and date of birth, and an identity thief can do just about anything he or she desires - like open a line of credit, land a job, file a tax return, drain your retirement savings, give the authorities your name if they're arrested, and so much more.

How Can an Identity Thief Obtain My Information?

Especially in this day and age, identity thieves have multiple ways to steal, or attempt to steal, your personal and sensitive information. Here are a few of the most popular:

  • Over the Phone: Phishing scams via e-mail and phone calls are very common. Identity thieves will call claiming to be your financial institution, doctor's office, or another place you trust, and may seem pretty legit. Typically, they claim that they are calling simply to update or verify sensitive information that your real institution already has.
  • In Your Backyard: They dig through trash cans. There's the occasional, harmless dumpster diver looking for salvageable furniture and recyclable cans, but identity thieves are on the hunt for something else: your private documents and your junk mail. Anything with your name and an address attached. An old pay stub, a discarded credit card offer, an outdated letter - if it's still intact, the thief can use it.
  • In Public: Identity thieves can easily obtain your PINs, passwords, and other private numbers and information simply by watching over your shoulder as you enter them or listening in on a phone call you’re having in public.

What are the Consequences for a Victim of Fraud?

While spending your hard-earned cash  is one way identity thieves can leave you in bad shape, they can also ruin your credit score, leaving you unable to purchase or rent a home or vehicle, make it more difficult - or even impossible - to obtain a new financial account, job, passport, and more. Even scarier, identity theft could lead to false imprisonment. That is, they land themselves in jail or prison but use your identity when they get booked.

How Can I Prevent Identity Theft?

  • Be Aware: Be aware of your surroundings when you're doing things like typing in, writing down, or voicing your PINs, passwords, and social security number.
  • Stay Up-to-Date: Frequently review your financial statements and accounts so that you can catch any unauthorized or suspicious charges or activity.
  • Check Your Credit Report: Check your credit report once a year - this will allow you to become aware of any unknown accounts that have been opened in your name (like a loan, credit card, etc.)
  • Trust Your Instincts: Exit out of any fishy e-mails and hang up on any questionable phone calls - if they claim to be your financial institution, doctor's office, etc. needing updated personal information - do not respond until you've contacted the real location directly, yourself.
  • Update Passwords: Change your passwords frequently - making sure they are creative and varied (try incorporating upper and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols.)
  • Stay in Touch: Let your financial institution know if you're heading out of state and where you'll be, for how long, so they can put a mark on your card and account, and update your contact information, to report any suspicious activity.
  • Ditch the Print: Go paperless where you can. Request to have your statements send via e-mail instead of through postal mail, where it might get into the wrong hands.
  • Report Lost Plastic: Immediately cancel any lost credit cards, debit cards, checks, or ID cards and have them re-issued.
  • Shred Away: Thoroughly destroy any and all documents, forms, and pieces of mail before you throw them out. Invest in a shredder or take advantage of places that offer shredding services. Note: 3Rivers will host three free shred days,open to the public, this year. Click here for dates and times.

What Do I Do if I'm a Victim of Fraud?

If you discover that you've become a victim of identity theft, then take the following steps immediately:

  1. Contact your financial institution and let them know what's happened.
  2. Contact your credit card suppliers.
  3. Contact the Social Security Fraud Hotline: 800.269.0271.
  4. Contact the FTC Identity Theft Hotline: 877.438.4338.

Visit our Fraud Protection page for additional information and resources concerning identity theft.

Take the proper steps to keep yourself, your family, and your accounts safe from identity thieves, and it'll be a lot harder for them to win!

1 Google's definition.
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