By Gayle Whitworth, Family and Consumer Sciences Extension Agent, University of Florida, Brevard County
Reviewed by Martie Gillen, PhD, Department of Family, Youth, and Community Sciences, University of Florida
March is Fraud Prevention Month. Learn more here.
It seems like every other day, we hear a new story about how customers’ personal information has been stolen from a large retailer or other big organization. It’s enough to make anyone paranoid. Have you thought about what you can do to guard against and watch out for possible identity theft?
Identity theft occurs when someone takes your personal information – such as your name, Social Security Number (SSN), driver’s license number, address, and/or birth date – and uses it for his or her own personal gain. Once someone has that personal information, it can be used to empty your bank account, run up charges on your credit cards, open new utility accounts, get medical treatment under your health insurance, and even file a tax refund in your name and get your refund. This crime can damage your credit, cause you major inconvenience, cost you money, and waste hours of your time.
Unfortunately, victims often don’t know that identity theft has occurred until it’s too late. However, warning signs can alert you to the possibility that someone has stolen some aspect of your identity. These signs can include:
- Unusual charges on bank accounts
- Unusual activity on credit cards
- Mail or bills failing to arrive as expected
- Bills showing as unpaid, even though you paid them
- Being denied for credit cards or loans
- Bills for medical services you did not receive
- Rejection of your tax return by the IRS (due to someone else filing with your stolen Social Security number)
The good news is that there are steps you can take to protect yourself again identity theft. Just remember three words: Deter, Detect, and Defend.
Here are some actions you can take to deter identity theft:
- Shred financial documents containing personal information
- Never carry your Social Security card around
- Don’t give out personal information over the phone, over the Internet, or through mail unless you originate the transaction yourself
- Never click on links in unsolicited emails or emails from unknown or suspicious senders
- Use strong, secure passwords online
- At home, store your personal information in a secure location
- Mail bills and other sensitive items at the post office, or place them in a blue Federal mailbox (don’t place them in your own mailbox)
- Only carry the credit cards and identification documents that you actually need
- You may wish to consider purchasing identity theft insurance IF it is included as a “rider” under your homeowner’s insurance policy. Before purchasing this coverage, read the policy carefully to decide whether it is worth the expense. Purchasing stand-alone identity theft insurance is not recommended.
Here are actions you can take to detect identity theft:
- Be alert for bills, mail, or account statements that don’t arrive on time
- Check out any unexpected credit card bills, unexpected denials of credit, and calls or letters about purchases you didn’t make
- Check your credit report at least once a year with each of the three main reporting agencies (to do so, visit Annual Credit Report).
- Review credit card accounts and billing statements monthly
Here are actions you can take if you must defend against identity theft:
- Place a Fraud Alert on your credit reports immediately if you suspect identity theft
- Close any accounts that have been compromised or opened fraudulently
- File a report with law enforcement if identity theft has occurred
- Report your complaint to the Federal Trade Commission
Unfortunately, no one can guarantee that you won’t ever be a victim of identity theft. However, these strategies should help reduce the chances that it will happen to you–and it if does, they’ll assist you in knowing what to do next.