Despite your best efforts to manage the flow of your personal information or to keep it to yourself, skilled identity thieves may use a variety of methods – low- and hi-tech – to gain access to your data. Here are some of the ways imposters can get your personal information and take over your identity.

How identity thieves get your personal information:

They steal wallets and purses containing your identification and credit and bank cards.

They steal your mail, including your bank and credit card statements, pre-approved credit offers, telephone calling cards and tax information.

They complete a “change of address form” to divert your mail to another location.

They rummage through your trash, or the trash of businesses, for personal data in a practice known as “dumpster diving.”

They fraudulently obtain your credit report by posing as a landlord, employer or someone else who may have a legitimate need for — and a legal right to — the information.

They get your business or personnel records at work.

They find personal information in your home.

They use personal information you share on the Internet.

They buy your personal information from “inside” sources. For example, an identity thief may pay a store employee for information about you that appears on an application for goods, services or credit.

How identity thieves use your personal information:

They call your credit card issuer and, pretending to be you, ask to change the mailing address on your credit card account. The imposter then runs up charges on your account. Because your bills are being sent to the new address, it may take some time before you realize there’s a problem.

They open a new credit card account, using your name, date of birth and SSN. When they use the credit card and don’t pay the bills, the delinquent account is reported on your credit report.

They establish phone or wireless service in your name.

They open a bank account in your name and write bad checks on that account.

They file for bankruptcy under your name to avoid paying debts they’ve incurred under your name, or to avoid eviction.

They counterfeit checks or debit cards, and drain your bank account.

They buy cars by taking out auto loans in your name.

MINIMIZE YOUR RISK

While you probably can’t prevent identity theft entirely, you can minimize your risk. By managing your personal information wisely, cautiously and with an awareness of the issue, you can help guard against identity theft:

  • Before you reveal any personally identifying information, find out how it will be used and whether it will be shared with others. Ask if you have a choice about the use of your information: can you choose to have it kept confidential?
  • Pay attention to your billing cycles. Follow up with creditors if your bills don’t arrive on time. A missing credit card bill could mean an identity thief has taken over your credit card account and changed your billing address to cover his tracks.
  • Guard your mail from theft. Deposit outgoing mail in post office collection boxes or at your local post office. Promptly remove mail from your mailbox after it has been delivered. If you’re planning to be away from home and can’t pick up your mail, call the U.S. Postal Service at  1-800-275-8777 to request a vacation hold. The Postal Service will hold your mail at your local post office until you can pick it up.
  • Put passwords on your credit card, bank and phone accounts. Avoid using easily available information like your mother’s maiden name, your birth date, the last four digits of your SSN or your phone number, or a series of consecutive numbers.
  • Minimize the identification information and the number of cards you carry to what you’ll actually need.
  • Do not give out personal information on the phone, through the mail or over the Internet unless you have initiated the contact or know who you’re dealing with. Identity thieves may pose as representatives of banks, Internet service providers and even government agencies to get you to reveal your SSN, mother’s maiden name, financial account numbers and other identifying information. Legitimate organizations with whom you do business have the information they need and will not ask you for it.
  • Keep items with personal information in a safe place. To thwart an identity thief who may pick through your trash or recycling bins to capture your personal information, tear or shred your charge receipts, copies of credit applications, insurance forms, physician statements, bank checks and statements that you are discarding, expired charge cards and credit offers you get in the mail.
  • Be cautious about where you leave personal information in your home, especially if you have roommates, employ outside help or are having service work done in your home.
  • Find out who has access to your personal information at work and verify that the records are kept in a secure location.
  • Give your SSN only when absolutely necessary. Ask to use other types of identifiers when possible.
  • Don’t carry your SSN card; leave it in a secure place.
  • Order a copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit reporting agencies every year. Make sure it is accurate and includes only those activities you’ve authorized. The law allows credit bureaus to charge you up to $8.50 for a copy of your credit report.

Your credit report contains information on where you work and live, the credit accounts that have been opened in your name, how you pay your bills and whether you’ve been sued, arrested or filed for bankruptcy. Checking your report on a regular basis can help you catch mistakes and fraud before they wreak havoc on your personal finances. See “Credit Reports” for details about removing fraudulent and inaccurate information from your credit report.

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