Identity theft occurs when someone uses your personal information such as your name, Social Security number, credit card number or other identifying information, without your permission to commit fraud or other crimes. Once in possession of your identity, the thief commits financial crimes such as applying for and receiving credit cards and loans in your name or making significant purchases on your credit cards or other financial accounts.
Identity theft is surprisingly easy to pull off. According to a September 2003 survey commissioned by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), an estimated 10 million Americans have been victims of some form of identity theft in the last year, with the loss to businesses estimated at more than $33 billion.
Identity theft is a serious crime. People whose identities have been stolen can spend months or years -- and their hard-earned money -- cleaning up the mess thieves have made of their good name and credit record. In the meantime, victims may lose job opportunities, be refused loans, education, housing or cars, or even get arrested for crimes they didn't commit.
The elderly are often prime targets because thieves believe they are more trusting and thus more susceptible to scams.
Identity thieves gather the key personal information required to steal an individual's identity in a variety of ways.
- by stealing wallets and purses containing identification and credit and bank cards;
- by rummaging through your trash, the trash of businesses, or dumps in a practice known as "dumpster diving";
- by stealing mail, including bank and credit card statements, pre-approved credit offers, new checks, or tax information;
- by completing a "change of address form" to divert mail to another location; and
- by scamming information from you by posing as a legitimate business person or government official.
Fortunately, there are steps consumers can take to greatly reduce the chances of becoming a victim of identity theft. Here are a few:
- Do not carry your Social Security card with you. Give out your Social Security number only when absolutely necessary.
- Buy a shredder and before throwing them out shred all communications from health care providers, banks, financial institutions, and anything else that could contain your personal identifying information. Even shred those pesky credit offers you get in the mail.
- Never put your outgoing mail in your mailbox.
- 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.
- Be wary of promotional scams. Identity thieves may use phony offers to get you to give them your personal information.
- If possible, use a credit card with your picture on it or write "Check ID" on the card above or below your signature.
- Don't carry all your credit cards with you, only carry the ones you will use.
- At least once a year contact the three major credit bureaus to obtain copies of your credit reports and examine them carefully for any discrepancies.
To report an identity theft, call the FTC's ID Theft Hotline-1-877-ID-THEFT (438-4338) or use the FTC's online form.
The FTC's Identity Theft website is a great resource for combating this crime.
The Department of Justice also has a website on identity theft.
Check out “10 Tips to Protect Yourself From Identity Theft” from Purdue University Global.