Safe Family: Identity theft

By: Nicole Holt Email
By: Nicole Holt Email

Protecting yourself from ID Theft is important. The Justice Department says it has charged 11 people with stealing and selling more than 40 million credit and debit card numbers in what it calls the largest hacking and identity theft case it has ever prosecuted. There are ways to protect yourself from becoming the victim:

Simple ways to protect yourself

There is no ironclad protection that guarantees that you'll never fall victim to some form of identity theft. But there are steps you can take to protect yourself, many of which are rather simple:

1. Destroy private records and statements. Tear up -- or, if you prefer, shred -- credit card statements, solicitations and other documents that contain private financial information.

2. Secure your mail. Empty your mailbox quickly, lock it or get a P.O. box so criminals don't have a chance to snatch credit card pitches. Never mail outgoing bill payments and checks from home. They can be stolen from your mailbox and the payee's name erased with solvents. Mail them from the post office or another secure location.

3. Safeguard your Social Security number. Never carry your card with you, or any other card that may have your number, like a health insurance card. And don't put your number on your checks. It's the primary target for identity thieves because it gives them access to your credit report and bank accounts. (For more on protecting your Social Security number, see "Safeguard your Social Security number.")

4. Don't leave a paper trail. Never leave ATM, credit card or gas station receipts behind.

5. Never let your credit card out of your sight. Worried about credit card skimming? Always keep an eye on your card or, when that's not possible, pay with cash.

6. Know who you're dealing with. Whenever anyone contacts you asking for private identity or financial information, make no response other than to find out who they are, what company they represent and the reason for the call. If you think the request is legitimate, contact the company yourself and confirm what you were told before revealing any of your personal data.

7. Take your name off marketers' hit lists. In addition to the national Do-Not-Call registry (1-888-382-1222), you can also cut down on junk mail and opt out of credit card solicitations.

8. Be more defensive with personal information. Ask salespeople and others if information such as a Social Security or drivers license number is absolutely necessary. Ask anyone who does require your Social Security number -- for instance, your insurance company -- what their privacy policy is and whether you can arrange for the organization not to share your information with anyone else.

9. Monitor your credit report. Obtain and thoroughly review your credit report (now available for free at Annualcreditreport.com or by calling 877-322-8228) at least once a year to look for suspicious activity. If you spot something, alert your card company or the creditor immediately. You may also want to subscribe to a credit protection service, like Experian's CreditCheck, which alerts you any time a change takes place with your credit report.

10. Review your credit card statements carefully. Make sure you recognize the merchants, locations and purchases listed before paying the bill. If you don't need or use department-store or bank-issued credit cards, consider closing the accounts. For more on when and how to close credit card accounts, see "Cancel a credit card -- the right way."

If something goes wrong

Again, protecting yourself from identity theft is no sure thing. But there is plenty you can do if you uncover some wrongdoing:

First, contact the fraud departments of each of the three major credit bureaus. Tell them that you're an identity theft victim. Request that a "fraud alert" be placed in your file, along with a victim's statement asking that creditors call you before opening any new accounts or changing your existing accounts.

Equifax
To report fraud: 1-800-525-6285

and write:

P.O. Box 740241
Atlanta, GA 30374-0241

Experian
To report fraud: 1-888-EXPERIAN (397-3742)

and write:

P.O. Box 9532
Allen, TX 75013

TransUnion

To report fraud: 1-800-680-7289

and write:

Fraud Victim Assistance Division
P.O. Box 6790
Fullerton, CA 92634

Contact the creditors for any accounts that have been tampered with or opened fraudulently. Speak with someone in the security or fraud department of each creditor, and follow up with a letter.

File a report with your local police or the police in the community where the identity theft took place. Get a copy of the police report in case the bank, credit-card company or others need proof of the crime.

Keep records of everything involved in your efforts to clear up fraud, including copies of written correspondence and records of telephone calls.

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