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You’ve been receiving bills for items that you don’t remember charging. Then you find that your request for an auto loan has been denied when you know your credit history is squeaky clean. To make matters worse, the police bring you down to the station to question you about a crime that you didn’t commit. Has the whole world gone mad? Probably not. These are signs that someone else may be using your personal information to commit fraud.
“According to the General Accounting Office (GAO), there is a large increase in identity theft,” notes Jodi Beebe, hot line coordinator of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (619-298-3396). She says the misuse of individuals’ Social Security numbers is largely responsible for the trend. Nowadays, Social Security numbers are used as an identifier by educational institutions, the military, health insurance providers and even video stores. “Anyone who has a Social Security number can begin establishing credit with that person’s identity,” Beebe warns.
One of the best ways to thwart such efforts is to safeguard your Social Security number, advises Mari Frank, attorney and identity theft expert. “Don’t give your Social Security number out to anyone that doesn’t have a right to it,” she insists. Only your employer, accountant, bank or loan institution really needs this information. To protect your Social Security number, you may have to take your business elsewhere. “A Blockbuster or Little League team has no right to ask you for your Social Security number,” she adds.
Also get credit reports from the three credit reporting agencies at least twice a year. “Look at [the reports] carefully to make sure they are accurate,” Frank says. “They may contain two Social Security numbers or list a company making an inquiry without your permission.” Other safety measures include shredding your utility, bank and credit card statements; requesting companies use a number other than your Social Security number as an identifier and avoiding the use of your mother’s maiden name or your birth date as a password or secret code.
But just in case you still become a victim of identity theft, here’s how you should handle it:
- Call the fraud line of all credit reporting agencies. Put a fraud alert on your credit report to prevent the issuance of credit without first getting your approval. You can do this even if you don’t suspect identity theft. You must also request copies of your credit reports. Victims of identity theft are entitled to free copies.
- Make a report to the fraud unit of the police department in your city. If your state doesn’t have an identity theft statute or law, fill out a police report so that you can send a copy of it to the credit reporting agencies.
- Enlist the U.S. Secret Service. Typically, the Secret Service only investigates cases involving a substantial dollar loss or those that seem to indicate a larger pattern. However, it may be able to assist you if the imposter is in another state.
- Alert the injured companies. For start-ers, contact the IRS, the Social Security