What Is Identity Theft?

Identity theft is a crime. In fact, it’s a growing crime. Identity theft occurs when someone uses your personal information to commit fraud. They can get a job with your name. They can apply for a loan with your name. They can and most commonly do apply for credit cards in your name.

Thieves commit identity theft by obtaining your name, driver’s license number, social security number or credit card numbers. As you can see, identity theft is a serious crime, particularly to the victims who are left with the headaches and heartaches of repairing their good name and their credit history once they’ve been victimized.

How Common Is Identity Theft? Am I Likely To Be A Victim?

Unfortunately, incidences of identity theft seem to be increasing. In 2007 the FTC reported just over seven million incidences. In 2008 the number went up to ten million and by 2009 it jumped to eleven million.

And anyone can be a victim. Identity thieves come in all shapes and sizes and unfortunately they’re difficult to spot. Your information can be stole in a number of ways including:

  • Stealing. Someone steals your wallet or purse and they have everything they need to steal your identity.
  • Trash. Some thieves are a little more daring and will happily dig through your trash and look for documents with your personal information on it. This is why shredding your documents is so important.
  • Changing your address. Sometimes all a thief has to do is call your utility or other accounts and change your address. Then your mail, bills, and personal information are mailed to them.

And thieves are getting technologically advanced too.

Have you heard of Phishing? It’s the practice of pretending you’re a bank or other financial institution and tricking people into giving you their personal information. It’s generally done through email.

And skimming is incredibly common. A skimmer is a storage device where the person simply scans your credit card and they have access to your number and your account. Any time you hand your credit card to someone and your card leaves your sight (like when you’re at a restaurant and the waitperson walks away with your card) you’re at risk for skimming.

How Can I Protect Myself From Identity Theft?

There are actually a number of things you can do to protect yourself from identity theft. They include:

  • Shredding all documents
  • Paying with cash when you’re dining out or in a situation where your credit card may be out of your sight for any time.
  • Never click on a link in an email from a bank or financial institution. If you receive a message from your bank. Go to your bank’s website in a separate browser window and check your messages and your account.
  • Never share your personal information with anyone you don’t know via email or the telephone. If someone calls you asking for personal information and says they’re from a financial institution. Hang up and call the bank back at the number you have in your records (not the number the person on the phone gave you unless it matches the information you already have.)
  • You can also protect yourself by staying on top of all of your account statements and by making sure to get your free annual credit reports from each of the three reporting agencies.
  • Credit monitoring services can also help you stay on top of any changes or inquiries into your account. They won’t protect you from being a victim but they’ll help you catch it quickly before too much damage has been done.

What Can I Do When My Identity Has Been Stolen?

Because identity theft is so common it’s likely that you’ll have to deal with it at some point in your life. If your identity has been stolen it’s important to immediately call your financial institutions to alert them. Most often you’ll be issued new accounts without a problem and your old accounts will be closed.

They’ll also walk you through the process of how to dispute any unauthorized transactions that were made. You may want to also place a credit freeze also known as a fraud alert with the credit reporting agencies. This lets potential lenders know they need to take extra measures to verify the identity of anyone applying for credit.

It’s also important to let your local police know if you’ve been a victim of identity theft.

Identity theft is a problem but you’re not without protections and repercussions. Your best course of action is to stay alert and on top of your accounts. Obtain and review your annual credit report and consider a credit monitoring service.

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