The Facts About Identity Theft

By Jason Marshall , last updated December 21, 2011

Identity theft is a crime that affects an estimated nine million Americans every year. Identity thieves steal social security numbers, credit card account numbers, bank account numbers, and other data used to identify us. They can use the information for a variety of things, all of which will come back to haunt the victim later. So what do we need to know about identity theft and how can we protect ourselves?

How to Detect Identity Theft

Identity theft is usually not detected until damage has already been done. Thieves are known to use stolen identities to get credit cards, open a bank account in your name and write bad checks, get government benefits using your social security number, file fraudulent tax returns for the refund, open a phone, electric, or gas bill in your name, or obtain a job using your social security number. In order to avoid the hassle and, often, unnecessary expense, of getting these fraudulent items removed from your credit report, it is necessary to remain vigilant.

The easiest and most effective ways to ensure no one is using your information is to regularly check your bank and credit card statements. Make sure all the activity is legitimate. Also, keep an eye on your credit report. If you notice lines of credit or loans you did not take out, employers you never worked for, or addresses you never lived at on it, you need to contact the credit reporting agency immediately.

How Did They Get My Information?

The best way to prevent identity thieves from stealing your information is understanding how they most often get it. Knowing their methods makes it easier to protect yourself. One common way identity thieves get their victims’ information is by going through their trash. There they can find credit card statements or other bills and documents that have your personal information on them.

Another common scheme is known as phishing, whereby they send their victims emails pretending to be a financial institution or other institution associated with the victim and request personal information like social security numbers or passwords. Identity thieves have also been known to call their victims to request the same information.

These are probably the most common methods of acquiring information, but they are also known to obtain information from stolen wallets and purses. Or they might fill out a change of address form and have your mail diverted to another place so they can pilfer your personal information.

How to Avoid Identity Theft

No one can protect themselves one hundred percent, but there are some simple steps you can take to limit your vulnerability. First, follow the advice from above and monitor you accounts and credit reports. Catching fraud early can prevent future headaches. Second, don’t carry your social security card or other documents with sensitive personal information with you. Nor should you throw away items like this without first shredding them. And never give your personal information to anyone unless you know they are legitimate.

If you find you have been a victim, it is important to notify your bank, the credit reporting agencies and, maybe most importantly, file a fraud report with the police and the Federal Trade Commission. They have an online complaint form on their website.

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