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What You Can Do To Avoid Becoming A Victim of Identity Theft
Identity Theft is on the rise. Often the first notice consumers get that someone has fraudulently assumed their identity is either a call from a collection agency demanding payment on an overdue credit account which they never opened or when their own monthly billing statements do not arrive in the mail and they find out the address on their account has been changed. Most victims never learn how the thief accessed their personal information.
It may be impossible for a consumer to prevent access to all his or her personal information which is so readily available to thieves (and to junk marketers) from a variety of sources. Broader changes are needed to effectively combat ID theft. Consumers should demand legislative action to address the issue.
Following are some simple steps you can take now to protect your private information. These steps won't prevent fraud in all cases, but will make your information more secure.
Avoid Fake E-mails Tied to Bank Mergers
Online scammers are taking advantage of tough economic times. While e-mails phishing for sensitive data are nothing new, scammers are taking advantage of upheavals in the financial marketplace to confuse consumers into parting with valuable personal information.
Mail theft is one of the top ways a thief gains access to personal information. Consider buying a mailbox that locks or installing a mailbox slot in your door to protect bills, convenience checks, pre-approved credit offers, etc. before you get a chance to shred them.
Opt-out of pre-approved Credit Offers by calling 1-888-5-OPTOUT, which is a number established by the three major credit bureaus allowing you to opt out of most pre-approved credit offers.
Protecting Personal Information
Always question the information gathering and handling practices of merchants, creditors, government agencies, employers, educational institutions and others. Don't be afraid to ask, do they really need this information for a valid purpose?
• Credit card account numbers—do not write account numbers on checks, outside of envelopes (California and many other states prohibit merchants from requiring you to write a credit card number on your check); avoid giving account numbers over the phone to companies you are unfamiliar with, especially when you did not initiate the call.
• Social security numbers—ask to have an alternative number where social security numbers are used for identification by schools, employers, or other institutions; resist writing your social security number on checks where possible (there is no law in MA prohibiting merchants from requesting it); keep tax records and other financial documents in a secure place and destroy or delete social security numbers from any documents before throwing them away.
• Address and phone number—do not give out or write your name and address down in conjunction with a credit card sale. You may want to have your name, address, and phone number deleted from marketers' lists by writing to Direct Marketing Association's Mail Preference Service (P.O. Box 9008, Farmingdale, NY 11735) and Telephone Preference Service (P.O. Box 9015, Farmingdale, NY 11735).
• Other common identifying information—consider using other security passwords for financial accounts rather than solely common identifiers such as mother's maiden name and birth date; if you have your driver's license pre-printed on your checks, always shred canceled checks before throwing away.
Monitoring Credit Reports
Obtain a copy of your credit report on a regular basis to monitor for changed addresses and fraudulent account information. Click here to find out how to contact the credit bureaus, for information on contacting Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax. In most states it costs $8 to receive a copy of your report. If you live in Vermont, Massachusetts, Georgia, Maryland, Colorado or New Jersey, you can obtain a free credit report annually from each of the Big Three. In Maine, credit reports are $3 and in Connecticut, the cost for the first report requested in a 12-month period is $5.00 and $7.50 for each subsequent report.
Monitoring Billing Statements
Check your billing statements each month for fraudulent charges and report any suspicious charges immediately. If you do not receive your statement on time, call your creditor. It may be that a fraudulent change of address was sent to the creditor or the post office. Call the creditor first and then the post office to see if a change of address has been filed in your name.
Pre-approved Credit Card Offers
"Credit card: 6% APR!!" These brightly-colored come-ons from banks are easily converted into fraudulent accounts. Always tear up pre-approved credit card applications before throwing them away.
Credit card solicitations are generated from "pre-screened lists" of credit reports provided by credit bureaus. If you do not want to receive these offers, contact each of the Big Three credit bureaus to remove your name from these lists.
Mistakes on Your Credit Report
Under federal law, both the consumer reporting company and the information provider (that is, the person, company, or organization that provides information about you to a consumer reporting company) are responsible for correcting inaccurate or incomplete information in your report. To take advantage of all your rights under this law, contact the consumer reporting company and the information provider.
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