Walter received a phone call from an auto finance company that said it was going to repossess his truck. Walter did not own a truck. He found out that someone using his name and Social Security number had applied for a car loan and had never made the payments. He also found out this same stranger had opened up two credit accounts in Walter's name and charged thousands of dollars.
When someone else uses your name, Social Security number, bank account number, credit card number, or any other personal identifying information to commit fraud, it's called identity theft. The imposter may open credit accounts, get a driver's license or rent an apartment in your name, and wreak havoc with your finances. An identity thief may even rack up criminal charges or declare bankruptcy in your name.
You should suspect identity theft if: you receive a letter from a bank or creditor confirming your recent change of address - and you haven't moved; you receive a call or letter stating that you have been approved or denied credit for which you never applied or a collection agency says it is trying to collect on an account that you didn't open.
To reduce your vulnerability of becoming a victim of identity theft:
- Don't give personal information over the phone, through the mail, or on the Internet unless you've initiated the contact. Thieves lie to trick you into disclosing information so don't hesitate to end the communication and if necessary initiate follow-up at a number or address you know to be accurate (i.e., the number you find in the phone book or on your billing statement).
- Treat your mail and trash carefully. Place outgoing mail in secure collection box and promptly remove mail from your mailbox.
- Tear or shred private records including charge receipts, credit applications, insurance forms, physician statements, checks and bank statements, expired charge cards that you're discarding, and credit offers. Also shred anything that has your Social Security number or an account number.
- Stop mail credit offers by calling toll-free 1-888-567-8688 or visiting www.optoutprescreen.com. You will be asked to provide your Social Security number so the consumer reporting companies can match your request with your file. These systems are automated, so you won't be able to speak to an operator when you call.
- Carefully and promptly review statements and bills for unauthorized charges or fraudulent use. Make a written report of any problems.
- Don't carry your Social Security card or number; instead leave it in a secure place.
- Don't leave personal information where others can see it, particularly if you have roommates, employ outside help, or are having work done in your home.
- If you need to order check refills, instead of having your checks mailed to you, pick them up at your bank or credit union.
- Limit the information on personal checks. Your middle name, phone number, Social Security number and driver's license number do not have to be on your checks.
- Keep a secure master list or photocopies of all important identification and account numbers - driver's license, Social Security card, credit cards, bank and utility account numbers, expiration dates, and the phone numbers of the customer service fraud departments of your card issuers. Keep in a safe place but not your purse, wallet, or a car - so that you can respond quickly in case your identification is lost or stolen.
- Check your credit reports every four months. Use this form if you wish to do so by mail. You may instead order by phone toll-free 1-877-322-8228 or online at www.annualcreditreport.com. You are entitled to one free report from each of the three credit reporting agencies each year. Remember to request that only the last four digits of your Social Security number appear on your report.
- If you do not think you will need to apply for credit in the near future, you may also wish to consider adding a "security freeze" to your credit reports. A "security freeze" essentially locks, or freezes, your credit reports - that means that potential creditors and other third parties will not be able to get access to your credit report unless you temporarily lift the freeze. For more information on how to place security freezes on your credit reports, please see the Attorney General's Consumer Alert entitled "Security Freeze Information for Michigan Consumers," available at www.michigan.gov/ag.
If you discover that someone is using your identity fraudulently, immediately report it to one of the consumer reporting companies: Equifax: 1-800-846-5279; Experian 1-888-397-3742; or TransUnion: 1-800-680-7289. The company you call is required to contact the other two companies. Also close the accounts that have been tampered with or opened fraudulently, and file a report with your local police. These and other steps are detailed in the Federal Trade Commission's publication, "Take Charge: Fighting Back Against Identity Theft," available at www.ftc.gov/idtheft.