ID theft: insidious and all too common
Federal authorities this week announced arrests in what they called the largest identity fraud case in U.S. history. A ring of thieves had stolen private financial information from 30,000 consumers, intent on draining their bank accounts and running up their charge cards.
It could happen to you. To steal your identity, all thieves need is your name, Social Security number or credit card number. Then, according to the Federal Trade Commission, they open a new credit card account, using your name, date of birth and Social Security number. When they use the credit card and don't pay the bills, the delinquent account is reported on your credit report.
They call your credit card issuer and, pretending to be you, change the mailing address on your credit card account. Then, the imposter runs up charges on your account. Because your bills are being sent to the new address, you might not realize there's a problem until you begin receiving nasty letters from collection agencies.
The thieves might also establish cellular phone service in your name, or open a bank account in your name and start writing bad checks on that account.
The FTC says you can minimize your risk but not eliminate it by managing your personal information wisely.
The Identity Theft Resource Center suggests these steps:
- Check your credit reports once a year from all three of the credit-reporting agencies.
- Guard your Social Security number. When possible, don't carry your Social Security card with you. Don't put your SSN or driver's license number on your checks.
- Guard your personal information. You should never give your Social Security number to anyone unless they have a good reason for needing it. Watch for people who may try to eavesdrop for information you give out orally.
- Carefully destroy papers you throw out, especially those with sensitive or identifying information. A crosscut paper shredder works best.
- Be suspicious of telephone solicitors. Never provide information unless you have initiated the call.
- Use a locked mailbox to send and receive all mail.
- Reduce the number of preapproved credit card offers you receive 888-5OPT OUT (they will ask for your SSN).
If you've been a victim of identity theft, file a complaint with the FTC at toll-free 1-877-IDTHEFT (438-4338).