Identity Theft

Identity theft has become more prevalent in today's society.  If it hasn't happened to you, you may not even be entirely sure what "identity theft" means. We're not talking about something out of some spy novel. We're talking about financial fraud: criminals being issued credit cards in other people's names and then running the cards up past their limits-to the eventual dismay of the people whose identities they assumed. Sometimes purchases are made using checks ordered in someone else's name.

Identity thieves steal their victims' names and Social Security numbers in a variety of ways. They get such information by swiping bill payments, financial statements, credit cards, and preapproved credit card applications from mailboxes, or even from the Internet. Sometimes they find it on items that have been thrown in the trash.

How to Protect Yourself

There's no foolproof way to protect yourself from financial fraud of this sort. One thing you can do is to conduct frequent reviews of your credit record. You should obtain a credit report once or twice a year. Credit reports are available from Equifax (1-800-378-2732 or), TransUnion (1-800-916-8800), and Experian (1-800-422-4879). If you find anything strange in your report, tell the credit bureau and bring it to the attention of the creditor. If you live in Maryland, you can obtain a free credit report annually, but even if you have to pay, it's usually under $10 - a small price to pay for peace of mind.

Those suspicious entries may turn out to be nothing more than mistakes. (Credit bureaus do make mistakes.) If you find mistakes, get them cleared up. You don't want those mistakes to prevent you from getting credit when you need it or from getting it at a good rate.

Other ways to protect yourself

The web site www.feelsafeagain.com provides a wealth of tips on personal safety. Some of their recommendations on protecting against identity theft:

  • Do not routinely carry your Social Security card, your birth certificate, your passport or more than one credit card. When you must carry some or all of these, take special precautions to reduce the risk of loss or theft. 
  • Always take credit card, debit card and ATM receipts with you. Never throw them in a public trash container. Tear them up or shred them at home when you no longer need them. 
  • Mail all bill payments from the post office or a locked public mail box rather than have your mail carrier pick them up from your home mail box.
  • Consider installing a professionally installed, monitored home security system. 
  • Obtain a post office box if you live in an area where mail theft has occurred. 
  • Tear up or shred: unused preapproved credit card solicitations, convenience checks, cancelled checks, deposit slips, paycheck or earning statements, and any other documents that contain personal information about you prior to placing it in the trash. 
  • Carefully review your credit card statements and utility bills (including cellular telephone bills) for unauthorized use as soon as you receive them. If you suspect unauthorized use, contact the provider's customer service and fraud departments immediately. 
  • Never give out your credit card, bank account or Social Security number over the telephone unless you placed the call and you have a trusted business relationship with the business or organization.
  • Guard against overuse of your Social Security number. Release it only when necessary -- for example, on tax forms and employment records, or for banking, stock and property transactions. If you suspect that someone has used your Social Security Number, report it to the SSA Fraud Hotline at 800-269-0271.

If identity theft ever appears to be a problem for you, please contact us. For example, if you experience a delay in receiving statements or checks from us, call us to make sure they didn't wind up somewhere they shouldn't have. You may save yourself some headaches.

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