Fact Sheet # 17: Coping with Identity Theft:
What To Do When An Imposter Strikes
Copyright 1997-1999. Utility Consumers' Action Network.
May 1995. Revised January 1999.
This copyrighted document may be copied and distributed for nonprofit, educational purposes only. The text of this document may not be altered without express authorization of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. This fact sheet should be used as an information source and not as legal advice. PRC materials are designed primarily for California residents. Laws in other states may vary. This publication was developed under the auspices of the University of San Diego.
Privacy Rights Clearinghouse
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San Diego, CA 92101
Voice: (619) 298-3396
Fax: (619) 298-5681
Coping With Identity Theft:
What To Do When An Imposter Strikes
It can happen to anyone. The phone rings and a collection agency demands that you pay past-due accounts for merchandise you never ordered. The supermarket refuses your checks because you have a history of bouncing them. But you have a perfect record and always pay bills on time. What has happened?
The crime of identity theft is on the rise. Using a variety of methods, criminals steal credit card numbers, driver's license numbers, Social Security numbers, ATM cards, telephone calling cards and other key pieces of individuals' identities. They use this information to impersonate their victims, spending as much money as they can in as short a time as possible before moving on to someone else's name and account information.
Generally, victims of credit and banking fraud will be liable for no more than the first $50 of the loss. (15 USC 1643) In many cases, the victim will not be required to pay any part of the loss. (The victim must notify financial institutions within two days of learning of the loss, although this is often waived.)
Even though victims are usually not saddled with paying their imposters' bills, they are often left with a bad credit report and must spend months and even years regaining their financial health. In the meantime, they have difficulty writing checks, obtaining loans, renting apartments, and even getting hired. Victims of identity theft find almost no help from the authorities as they attempt to untangle the web of deception that has allowed another person to impersonate them.
Stealing wallets used to be the best way identity thieves obtained credit card numbers and other pieces of identification. Now more sophisticated means are commonly used:
Take these preventive steps to minimize your losses in case of identity theft:
Reducing access to your personal data:
1. To minimize the amount of information a thief can steal, do not carry extra credit cards, your Social Security card, birth certificate or passport in your wallet or purse, except when needed.
2. To reduce the amount of personal information that is "out there," consider the following:
3. Install a locked mailbox at your residence to reduce mail theft. Or use a post office box.
4. When you order new checks, do not have them sent to your home's mailbox. Pick them up at the bank instead.
5. When you pay bills, do not leave the envelopes containing your checks at your mailbox for the postal carrier to pick up. If stolen, your checks can be altered and then cashed by the imposter. It is best to mail bills and other sensitive items at the post office rather than neighborhood drop boxes.
6. Reduce the number of credit cards you actively use to a bare minimum. Carry only one or two of them in your wallet. Cancel all unused accounts. Even though you do not use them, their account numbers are recorded in your credit report which is full of data that can be used by identity thieves.
7. Keep a list or photocopy of all your credit cards, the account numbers, expiration dates and telephone numbers of the customer service and fraud departments in a secure place (not your wallet or purse) so you can quickly contact your creditors in case your cards have been stolen. Do the same with your bank accounts.
8. Never give out your credit card number or other personal information over the phone unless you have a trusted business relationship with the company and you have initiated the call. Identity thieves have been known to call their victims with a fake story that goes something like this. "Today is your lucky day! You have been chosen by the Publishers Consolidated Sweepstakes to receive a free trip to the Bahamas. All we need is your credit card number and expiration date to verify you as the lucky winner."
9. Order your credit report once a year from each of the three credit bureaus to check for inaccuracies and fraudulent use of your accounts.
10. Always take credit card receipts with you. Never toss them in a public trash container.
11. Watch the mail when you expect a new or reissued credit card to arrive. Contact the issuer if the card does not arrive.
Passwords and PINS:
12. When creating passwords and PINs (personal identification numbers), do not use the last four digits of your Social Security number, your birthdate, middle name, pet's name, consecutive numbers or anything else that could easily be discovered by thieves.
13. Ask your financial institutions to add extra security protection to your account. Most will allow you to use an additional code (a number or word) when accessing your account. Do not use your mother's maiden name, as that is all too easily obtained by identity thieves.
14. Memorize all your passwords. Don't record them on anything in your wallet or purse.
15. Shield your hand when using a bank ATM machine or making long distance phone calls with your phone card. "Shoulder surfers" may be nearby with binoculars or video camera.
Social Security numbers:
16. Protect your Social Security number (SSN). Release it only when absolutely necessary (like tax forms, employment records, most banking, stock and property transactions). The SSN is the key to your credit and banking accounts and is the prime target of criminals.
If a business requests your SSN, ask if it has an alternative number which can be used instead. Speak to a manager or supervisor if your request is not heeded. Ask to see the company's policy on SSNs. If necessary, take your business elsewhere. If the SSN is requested by a government agency, look for the Privacy Act notice. This will tell you if your SSN is required, what will be done with it, and what happens if you refuse to provide it. (See PRC fact sheet no. 10 for more information on SSNs.)
17. Do not have your SSN printed on your checks. Don't let merchants hand-write it onto your checks because of the risk of fraud. There is no law against this, so you may need to be assertive.
18. Order your Social Security Earnings and Benefits Statement once a year to check for fraud.
Responsible information handling:
19. Carefully review your credit card statements and phone bills, including cellular phone bills, for unauthorized use. (For more information on cell- phone fraud, see PRC fact sheet no. 2.)
20. Do not toss pre-approved credit offers in your trash or recycling bin without first tearing them into small pieces or shredding them. They can be used by "dumpster divers" to order credit cards in your name and mail them to their address. Do the same with other sensitive information like credit card receipts, phone bills and so on. Home shredders can be purchased in many office supply stores.
21. Demand that financial institutions adequately safeguard your data. Discourage your bank from using the last four digits of the SSN as the PIN number they assign to customers. Insist that banks remove account numbers from ATM slips (many have already done so). Also insist they shred all paper records before discarding them. By not adopting responsible information-handling practices, they put their customers at risk for fraud.
22. When you fill out loan or credit applications, find out how the company disposes of them. If you are not convinced that they store them in locked files and/or shred them, take your business elsewhere. Some auto dealerships, department stores, car rental agencies, and video stores have been known to be careless with customer applications.
When you pay by credit card, ask the business how it stores and disposes of the transaction slip. Avoid paying by credit card if you think the business does not use adequate safeguards.
23. Store your canceled checks in a safe place. In the wrong hands, they could reveal a lot of information about you, including the account number, your phone number and driver's license number. Never permit your credit card number to be written onto your checks. It's a violation of California law (California Civil Code 1725) and puts you at risk for fraud.
24. Any entity which handles personal information should train all its employees, from top to bottom, on responsible information-handling practices. Persuade the companies, government agencies, and nonprofit agencies with which you are associated to adopt privacy policies and conduct privacy training. Employees should be trained to check picture ID cards when accepting credit cards. (See PRC fact sheet no. 12, "Checklist of Responsible Information-Handling Practices.")
If you become the victim of identity theft, it is important to act immediately to stop the thief's further use of your identity.
1. Report the crime to the police immediately. Give them as much documented evidence as possible. Get a copy of your police report. Credit card companies, your bank, and the insurance company may require you to show the report in order to verify the crime. Some police departments have been known to refuse to write police reports on such crimes. Be persistent!
2. Immediately call all your credit card issuers. Get replacement cards with new account numbers. Ask that the old accounts be processed as "account closed at consumer's request." (This is better than "card lost or stolen," because when this statement is reported to the credit bureaus, it can be interpreted as blaming you for the loss.) Follow-up in writing. This protects you in case of a dispute with the credit card issuer.
3. Call the fraud units of the three credit reporting companies--Experian (formerly TRW), Equifax and Trans Union. Report the theft of your credit cards or numbers. Ask that your accounts be flagged. Also, add a victim's statement to your report. ("My ID has been used to apply for credit fraudulently. Contact me at 555-123-4567 to verify all applications.") Be sure to ask how long the fraud alert is posted on your account, and how you can extend it if necessary.
4. Notify your bank(s) of the theft. Cancel your checking and savings accounts and obtain new account numbers. Ask the bank to issue you a secret password that must be used in every transaction. Put stop payments on any outstanding checks that you are unsure of.
5. To prove your innocence, you may be required to fill out fraud affidavits with banks and credit grantors where fraudulent accounts have been established in your name. In some cases, you might be asked to have affidavits notarized, which could become costly. Attempt to persuade the requestors to waive the notary requirement. They may be willing to accept other forms of proof and save you the expense of notarizing documents.
6. If you use an ATM card for banking services, get a new card, account number and password. Do not use your old password. When creating a password, avoid such commonly used numbers as the last four digits of your Social Security number and your birthdate.
7. If you have had checks stolen or bank accounts set up fraudulently, report it to TeleCheck, National Processing Company (NPC) or Equifax. (See phone numbers below.)
8. The Secret Service has jurisdiction over financial fraud cases (18 USC 1029). This federal government agency usually does not investigate individual cases unless the dollar amount is high. To interest the Secret Service in your case, ask someone in the fraud department of your credit card companies and/or banks to notify the particular Secret Service agent they work with.
9. You may want to have your SSN changed if your number has become associated with bad checks and credit. Contact your local office of the Social Security Administration. Caution: This step should be reserved for only the most extreme situations. You must be sure to notify all credit grantors and credit reporting bureaus of your new SSN.
10. Notify the Postal Inspector if you suspect mail theft. Theft of mail is a felony.
11. If you have a passport, notify the passport office to be on the lookout for anyone ordering a new passport fraudulently.
12. Call your telephone, electrical, gas and water utilities. Alert them to the possibility that someone may attempt to open new service using your identification. Also contact your long distance company. You may need to cancel your long distance calling card if it has been stolen or if the account number has been accessed by "shoulder surfers."
13. You may want to change your driver's license number if someone has been using yours as identification on bad checks. When requesting a new number from the Department of Motor Vehicles, you might be asked to prove that you have been damaged by the theft of your driver's license. You may need to be persistent.
14. The nearest office of the Consumer Credit Counseling Service might be able to give you advice on removing fraudulent claims from your credit report. Call 800-388-2227.
15. In dealing with the authorities and financial institutions, keep a log of all conversations, including dates and names. Send correspondence by certified mail. Keep copies of all letters and documents. Provide your police report number to expedite reporting the crime.
16. Consider seeking legal counsel, especially if you have difficulty clearing up your credit history, or your case is complex and involves a lot of money. An attorney can help you recover from the fraud and determine whether your rights under various credit, banking, SSN and other laws have been violated.
17. Pay attention to your own mental health. Victims of identity theft often report they feel they are somehow to blame. They can also feel violated, even powerless, due to the fact that few, if any, of the authorities who have been notified of the crime step forward to help the victim. Discuss your situation with a friend or counselor. Seek help from a victims' rights organization.
Credit reporting bureaus
Report fraud: (800) 525-6285.
Or write: P.O. Box 740250, Atlanta, GA 30374.
Experian (formerly TRW)
Report fraud: (888) EXPERIAN, (888) 397-3742.
By Fax: (800) 301-7196.
Or write: P.O. Box 1017, Allen, TX 75013.
Report fraud: (800) 680-7289.
Or write: P.O. Box 6790, Fullerton, CA 92634.
Remember, you are entitled to a free credit report if you are a victim of identity theft, if you have been denied credit in the past 60 days, if you receive welfare benefits, or if you are unemployed. (See PRC fact sheet no. 6 for more information about credit reports.)
Social Security Administration
If your SSN has been used fraudulently for employment purposes, report the problem to the Social Security Administration at (800) 269-0271. You may order your Earnings and Benefits Statement by calling (800) 772-1213. Unfortunately, the SSA has no procedures in place to deal with non-employment types of SSN fraud, such as credit application fraud. For extreme cases of identity theft, they may be willing to change your SSN.
To remove your name from mail and phone lists (Direct Marketing Association)
To report fraudulent use of your checks (contact the company which the merchant uses)
Reports on Identity Theft
CALPIRG has released two reports on identity theft, titled "Theft of Identity: The Consumer X-files." See their web site for more information (http://www.pirg.org/calpirg/consumer/privacy/index.htm). Additional information can be obtained from CALPIRG or USPIRG:
11965 Venice Blvd. #408
Los Angeles, CA 90066
218 D St., S.E.
Washington, D.C. 20003
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