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How to Prevent Identity Theft

Despite the uniqueness and individuality you possess, when the right pieces of personal information get into the wrong hands, the integrity of your life may take a turn for the worse. Such is the world of ID theft, which can completely spin a life upside down as well as earth-shatteringly affect credit ratings to the point that aftereffects are felt for many years to come.

Identity theft is a serious problem, as the FTC estimates that as many as 9 million Americans will have their identities stolen each year. Chances are – you have already experienced the act and unfortunately – don’t even know about it. Overall, the crime is a shapeshifter, taking on many different forms, and causing varying levels of damage. In the long run, exercising proper prevention techniques helps to avert many potential cases of identity theft.

What is Identity Theft?

The theft of identity is a mounting worldwide problem that takes place when an unauthorized individual or group of people get a hold of personal identifying information (also known as PII) to use for their own private gain. This may include the theft of your Social Security number or driver’s license.

Today, a wide-range of techniques is used to steal an identity. Some thieves simply happen upon a lost wallet and decide to take advantage of its contents, while others devise elaborate plans on how to scan the Internet for potential identity theft victims. Identity theft incorporates many variations of destruction under the same umbrella through check fraud, credit card fraud, identity fraud, financial identity theft, criminal identity theft, medical identity theft, and governmental identity theft [1].

Identity thieves use many different techniques to obtain the information needed to commit their malicious intentions. While one of the most talked about invasions of privacy and personal information deals with computers (hacking, viruses, spyware), there are numerous ways an identity thief may strike.

Identity thieves may steal mail or search through garbage (also known as dumpster diving). They also commit what is referred to as “shoulder surfing,” where they eavesdrop on public transactions to acquire personal data [2]. They could hack into an organization or company that stores great amounts of personal information in their main computers or simply steal personal files sitting on shelves when the opportunity arises. Some thieves are employees in major companies that actually sell private information to others.

Over the years, identity theft has become an increasingly disturbing problem, as the total number of victims, total value of identity fraud, and the total average of fraud per person had increased since 2003. An Identity Theft Resource Center survey taken in 2003 showed that the average time spent trying to resolve identity theft issues totals about 40 hours, where the majority of victims were involved in some sort of credit card fraud [3].

The Different Types of Identity Theft

Often, the different kinds of identity theft are typically grouped into four main categories of identification. The various sub-divisions of this illegal act, includes:

a) Financial Identity Theft:

The use of violating the name or Social Security number of another in an effort to reap goods and services.

b) Criminal Identity Theft:

Posing as another when caught committing a crime.

c) Identity Cloning:

Using the information of another to take over his or her identity on a day-to-day basis.

d) Business & Commercial Identity Theft:

Using the business name of another in order to obtain credit.

The Threat of Common Scams

Another type of identity theft that deserves its own category is the art of scamming, which takes on many shapes and levels of devastation. Today, some of the best identity thieves are able to pose as a legitimate and trusted company in order to retrieve vital information from its consumers. Victims may unwillingly offer their credit card numbers and Social Security numbers without even questioning the authenticity of their correspondences with live representatives or mail messages. A few popular scams that include many well-known companies and tactics include:

a) Disaster Relief Scams:

Whenever a natural or man-made disaster strikes and the news begins to report the great need for donations and a “helping hand,” there are individuals callous enough to take advantage of the situation and make calls for “donations,” as well as set up fake websites claiming to help disaster victims. To avoid giving money to an illegitimate cause, it is suggested to watch news channels, such as CNN for information regarding the correct phone numbers and suggested addresses of appropriate places to send donations. When someone initiates the contact, this is a good sign that you have encountered a scam.

b) “Urgent” EBay, PayPal and Other Account Verification Scams:

When EBay, PayPal, and other institutions ask for credit information, Social Security numbers and other personal details, this is a good chance you are coming in contact with a scam. Some efforts will even show very good replicas of company emails and logos that you are already familiar with. This often fools people, however – these sort of companies never ask for such information in the form of an email (especially when they address their consumers as “Sir or Madam”).

c) IRS Scams:

Some individuals have fallen for scammers who hide behind the IRS in order to solicit personal details. The scam may involve the use of a telephone call and email message as an attempt to “verify” information that will be used in an IRS audit or to further provide bank or government services to the victim.

d) Credit Card Fraud:

There are emails sent by scammers claiming to have already accepted individuals for a no-strings-attached credit card if they simply fill out the application and send back for processing and verification. The same is true for representatives that man stations outside of stores and in front of college bookstores – they may possess the clipboard and the fancy-looking display – but has anyone ever questioned their credentials before filling out the paperwork?

e) Hospital Scams:

If it isn’t bad enough you’re confined to a hospital bed, but to become a victim of “hospital fraud” is unthinkable in your current state. There are scam artists who pose as hospital employees in order to ask patients to “verify” important information or “fill in the blanks” for “incomplete” paperwork. The fact that they are dressed like a hospital representative, carry clipboards around, and may even wear a lab coat are just some of the ways they can easily trick victims. Some patients are completely blinded by the situation, especially when under the influence of drugs or too elderly to pay attention. When in doubt, contact your floor nurse to make sure the paperwork is legit – often times, the scam artist will quickly disappear.

f) Telemarketing Scams:

Sometimes random phone calls come, promising you a great “Buy 1, Get 1 Free” deal or offer a really good price on a Caribbean cruise. When representatives start to ask for your Social Security, bank account and credit card numbers; a small alert should go off in your head because this is a common practice used by scammers to entice individuals to release their personal information to take advantage of such a “great deal.”

g) Retail Store Scams:

Even when you are shopping in your favorite store, you can become a victim of identity theft. Some scammers have found a way to gain personal information by even tricking store employees. With the use of a cell phone, a thief makes a phone call to a cashier, claiming they are store security and needs additional information on the customer they are currently ringing up. If a cashier receives a telephone call in the middle of a transaction and then asks for private information (credit card number, driver’s license or Social Security number), you should ask for your card back and request to see store security. The person that appears (if any) should wear a clearly marked store badge and possess a verifiable ID.

h) Jury Duty Scams:

Some people actually spend time calling others claiming to work for the local judicial courts and “inform” an unsuspecting victim they have failed to report to jury duty. When they tell them they have a warrant issued for their arrest, the victim really starts to listen even if they know they haven’t received a jury duty notification. The scammer will then ask the victim to “verify” confidential details, such as their Social Security number, birth date, and sometimes credit card numbers.

This information is just what a scammer needs in order to commit identity theft. This form of identity theft has been reported in about 10 states and is becoming more and more popular. As a rule of thumb, court employees never call a home and inquire about Social Security numbers (and especially not credit card numbers). It is also important to never give your SSN or credit card numbers, and any other private information over the phone.

The Negative Effects of Identity Theft

With a valid Social Security number, credit card details, and other personal information, an identity thief is able to commit an assortment of credit damage, fraud, destruction, and many other illegal activities. The implications and aftermath of identity theft shows through in the amount of damage that takes place, as well as the amount of financial consequences that surface. Victims may spend hundreds of dollars trying to reverse the damage that another has caused.

Identity theft may force some to miss out on job opportunities, education loans, car and house loans, and create a poor credit rating. Sometimes, the worst cases end in arrest when an identity is highjacked in order for another to commit a crime [4]. With the following types of identity theft fraud, the emotional, physical, judicial, and financial consequences can cause incredible strain on an individual and families. The aftermath may take years to fully recover.

The different types of damaging identity fraud that takes place once personal information is stolen are staggering. The following negative outcomes may occur:

a) Credit Card Fraud:

Identity thieves may open new credit card accounts in a victim’s name, and use the cards until lack of payment ceases their function. Many victims do not become aware of this activity until it is too late. Despite the identity theft that has taken place, delinquent accounts still appear on the victim’s credit report. Clever scammers may even change the billing address to the credit card so they are able to use the card without being detected.

b) Phone or Utilities Fraud:

Scammers may open new phone or wireless accounts in a victim’s name and then run up charges to the account. Utility service scams, including electricity, heating, or cable television, are also popular targets. The unpaid bills remain the responsibility of the victim, who may face months and months of sorting out the damage.

c) Bank and Finance Fraud:

Identity thieves may create counterfeit checks using the name and account number of victims. They then open bank accounts in their name and write many bad checks. Some scammers are clever enough to clone ATM or debit cards to make electronic withdrawals in a victim’s name that could possibly deplete an entire account. A victim may also suffer a loan taken out in their name.

d) Government Documents Fraud:

With the help of a driver’s license or official identification card, a scammer may use this information to file for government benefits or file a false tax return that uses a victim’s personal information.

e) Employment Fraud:

Scammers may use the credentials and personal information of another in order to secure a job. This is usually accomplished with the use of a stolen Social Security number.

f) Criminal Fraud:

When a scammer is stopped by the police or questioned for a possible crime, they may give an identity theft victim’s personal information during an arrest, thus placing the blame on their shoulders. When unsuspecting victims ignore court dates, a warrant for arrest is issued in their name.

g) Additional Fraud:

The number of fraudulent practices that could occur under a person’s name may include house rental, house loans, and medical services all received through the information given on another person.

How to Prevent Identity Theft

When identity theft prevention measures become part of your everyday lifestyle, you will be able to protect the personal details that affect your security, finances, and private information. Identity thieves are everywhere; therefore, the following prevention tips will surely come in handle, as you deal with the wide-ranging aspects of identity thievery:

a) Familiarize Yourself With Identity Theft Laws:

When analyzing the identity theft laws in your state, you may become more knowledgeable in some of the tactics, signs, and rights you possess regarding possible identity theft. To prevent further damage, some states offer a credit freeze law, which helps to reduce the amount of harm that an individual may suffer. For example, the state of New York offers the service for free to first-time users [5].

b) Protect Deceased Loved Ones [6]:

Unfortunately, just because someone is deceased doesn’t mean they are protected from identity fraud. There are scammers who thrive on taking advantage of the departed by attempting to steal their identity. The first step a loved one may take includes making at least 12 copies of the official death certificate to show as proof of death to various businesses and agencies.

It is also important to immediately notify applicable credit card companies, banks, stock brokers, loan/lien holders, and of course, the mortgage company of a death in the family. Closing accounts are also important and should be marked as “Closed. Account holder is deceased.”

c) Job Seekers Beware:

Some identity theft cases occur during the search for new employment, as job seekers face a slightly higher level of risk to identity theft. This is seen through the common practice of submitting online resumes that contain a wealth of personal information.

When creating a resume for online employment searches, it is important to avoid including your Social Security Number (SSN), date of birth (DOB), marital status, professional license numbers, gender, age, and driver’s license number. When answering employment ads posted in the newspaper, it is suggested not to submit the above information while conducting telephone interviews.

d) Stay Alert While Traveling [7]:

Whether you travel about for business or decide to take a trip for pleasure, there are plenty of threats lurking in the shadows. A traveler should stay alert and not invest their trust in anyone that they may meet while on vacation or out-of-town business. This includes the front desk clerks, housekeeping staff, bellmen, security guards, or tour guides. You should never reveal any personal information to these individuals.

A few precautionary tips include leaving checkbooks in a locked safe or at home; using a credit card (and not a debit card) to make purchases; refrain from traveling with bills in your possession; utilize hotel safes; be on the lookout for pickpockets; keep your wallet light; and always keep a grip on purses (especially when making a trip to a public restroom).

e) Practice Internet Safety Habits:

The Internet is notorious for placing people in danger for identity theft, as online shopping, online banking, and Web bill-pays are becoming an increasingly popular way to make purchases and pay bills. To protect your identity, it is important to browse and utilize secure websites; research websites and vendors before making a purchase; check privacy policies; practice safe shopping; and pay with credit cards, which offer better tracking and identity theft protection than the debit card.

f) Protect Your Computer [8]:

Installing effective anti-spyware and anti-adware software is a good way to protect your personal information. Installing firewall protection helps keep hackers out of your computer system, while various applications block spyware and adware from transmitting the details of your computer to outside parties. Once you have installed computer protection, it is essential to follow update alerts. Your computer habits also affect your Internet safety. For example, it is suggested to set up a pop-up blocker and avoid clicking on adware.

Resources

[1] www.idtheftcenter.org
[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Identity_theft#Techniques_for_obtaining_information
[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Identity_theft
[4] http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/microsites/idtheft/consumers/about-identity-theft.html
[5] www.consumersunion.org/pdf/security/securityNY.pdf
[6]http://www.idtheftcenter.org/artman2/publish/c_tips/Fact_Sheet_117_IDENTITY_THEFT_AND_THE_DECEASED_-_PREVENTION_AND_VICTIM_TIPS.shtml
[7] http://www.idtheftcenter.org/artman2/publish/c_tips/Fact_Sheet_122_Identity_Theft_Travel_Tips.shtml
[8] http://www.idtheftcenter.org/artman2/publish/c_tips/Fact_Sheet_119_-_Direct_Connections_to_the_Internet_-_Protecting_Yourself_and_Your_Information_Against_Intruders.shtml

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