Identity theft has affected tens of millions of Americans in recent years, according to the Federal Trade Commission, and more than half of victims say they don’t know how thieves got the information.
The most common form of identity theft involves stealing information on an existing credit card account, according to a November 2007 report prepared for the FTC. More than 22 percent of cases involved thieves opening new accounts with stolen information.
Whether identity theft occurs the old-fashioned way, with someone getting ahold of your credit card or wallet, or through cyber crime in which someone accesses your information electronically, there are a number of ways you can arm yourself against identity theft.
Here are a few simple things you can do:
• Don’t keep your Social Security card in your purse or wallet or print it on your checks. A thief who knows your Social Security number can open multiple new accounts as well as gain easier access to your current accounts.
• Don’t give out any personal information over the phone or on the Internet unless you are certain of the source or have contacted the company directly. Links in professional-looking e-mails have fooled many. Go directly to the business’s Web site if you have any questions.
• Invest in a shredder and use it to destroy documents containing personal information. This includes credit card statements, account statements, pay stubs, etc.
• Secure your computer privacy by investing in firewalls and anti-spyware programs, especially if you have a cable or DSL line that leaves your computer connected to the Internet 24/7. Visit www.OnGuardOnline.gov for more information on securing your computer.
• Make a list of your credit card numbers and the phone numbers you should call if they are lost or stolen, and keep it in a secure place.
• Don’t use obvious passwords like your name, part of your Social Security number or phone number or your address. Don’t use your mother’s maiden name, either. If a business asks that question, request another security question. Do use complex passwords that combine upper- and lower-case letters with numbers; they’re the toughest for cyber thieves to crack.
In addition, it's important to be alert to signs that your identity or account information has been stolen by monitoring your checking and credit-card accounts. It’s a good idea, too, to periodically obtain your credit reports from the three credit-rating agencies: TransUnion, Experian and Equifax. You can get one free report per year from each. Some people request a free report from a different agency every four months. You also order a free report from each agency at www.AnnualCreditReport.com.
The FTC includes these and other tips on avoiding identity theft at www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/microsites/idtheft/. There’s also a link for reporting identity theft.
Another good government resource is this U.S. Department of Justice Web site. The Justice Department site also includes links to other identity theft resources.