The United States Federal Trade Commission estimates that tens of millions of people have their identities stolen each year. Identity theft is a crime in which an impostor obtains key pieces of someone else’s personal identifying information such as Social Security numbers, driver’s license numbers and credit card numbers to use for their own personal gain. Identity theft victims may experience funds being taken out of their bank or financial accounts, or, in the worst cases, their identities being taken altogether—where the criminal runs up vast debts and even commits crimes while using the victims’ identity.
A victim of identity theft can experience substantial financial costs associated with trying to restore his or her reputation and correcting erroneous information caused by the criminal. Identity theft can start with lost or stolen wallets, pilfered mail, a data breach, a computer virus, phishing (the act of sending an email to someone claiming to be an established enterprise (often the IRS) in an attempt to steal their identity is known as “phishing.”), a scam, or dumpster diving (paper documents thrown out by you or a business). Identity theft is a serious crime; and there are various methods used by criminals to scam unsuspecting people into providing their personal information.
Common Identity Theft Scams
It is very easy for a criminal to steal someone else’s identity. The simple act of carrying-on a telephone conversation—in public—in which personal information is given can result in one’s personal information being stolen. The Internet has become an appealing place for criminals to obtain identifying data, such as passwords and banking information. In their haste to explore the exciting features of the Internet, many people respond to spam (unsolicited emails) that promises them some benefit but requests identifying data.
IRS impersonation schemes runs rampant during tax season. The scam-artists running these schemes pretend to be representatives of the IRS to attempt to steal your personal identification information. These schemes could take place through email, phone, fax, internet sites and even your social networking sites. Emails are very common, potential victims could receive emails that promise a refund or notification of an audit; these emails include links which lead to a form that needs to be filled out. Among the information requested are personal details as well as banking or credit information.
Old-fashioned identity theft methods are still very popular amongst criminals. Residential mailboxes and trash cans are two of the greatest risks to one’s identity. Mail scams happen all the time. The U.S. Postal Service handles billions of pieces of mail each month. That’s billions of opportunities for identity thieves to obtain information that can be used to steal people’s identities. Consider pre-approved credit card and mortgage loans, for example, on average, Americans receive four or more of these per week. And most of those people just toss them in the trash. They may not ever even open them up. Every piece of paper that has personal information about you on it can put you at risk. Identity thieves can pull the credit card approvals out of your trash along with the birthday card you received from Aunt Betty, a copy of your bank statement or a credit card statement, and have nearly all of the information they need about you. It really is that simple.
With enough identifying information, a criminal can take over an individual’s identity to conduct a wide range of crimes: for example, false applications for loans and credit cards, fraudulent withdrawals from bank accounts, fraudulent use of telephone calling cards, or obtaining other goods or privileges which the criminal might be denied if he were to use his real name. If the criminal takes steps to ensure that bills for the falsely obtained credit cards, or bank statements showing the unauthorized withdrawals, are sent to an address other than the victim’s, the victim may not become aware of what is happening until the criminal has already inflicted substantial damage on the victim’s assets, credit, and reputation. There are steps that can be taken to avoid becoming a victim of identity theft.
What Should You Do To Avoid Becoming A Victim Of Identity Theft?
To reduce or minimize the risk of becoming a victim of identity theft or fraud, there are some basic steps you can take. The most important thing you can do is: Be cautious about giving out your personal information to others unless you have a reason to trust them, regardless of where you are:
Start by adopting a need to know approach to your personal data. Your credit card company may need to know your mother’s maiden name, so that it can verify your identity when you call to inquire about your account. A person who calls you and says he’s from your bank, however, doesn’t need to know that information if it’s already on file with your bank; the only purpose of such a call is to acquire that information for that person’s personal benefit. Also, the more information that you have printed on your personal bank checks — such as your Social Security number or home telephone number — the more personal data you are routinely handing out to people who may not need that information.
If someone you don’t know calls you on the telephone and offers you the chance to receive a major credit card, a prize, or other valuable item, but asks you for personal data — such as your Social Security number, credit card number or expiration date, or mother’s maiden name — ask them to send you a written application form. If they won’t do it, tell them you’re not interested and hang up. If they will, review the application carefully when you receive it and make sure it’s going to a company or financial institution that’s well-known and reputable.
If you’re traveling, have your mail held at your local post office, or ask someone you know well and trust another family member, a friend, or a neighbor to collect and hold your mail while you’re away. If you have to telephone someone while you’re traveling, and need to pass on personal financial information to the person you’re calling, don’t do it at an open telephone booth where passersby can listen in on what you’re saying; use a telephone booth where you can close the door, or wait until you’re at a less public location to call.
Double check your W-2 information. If you get a W-2 from an unknown employer or see wages that you did not earn on a notice from the IRS, you may have a problem. If someone is working using your social security number and identity then you may be liable for any unpaid employment taxes. Again, contact the IRS Identity Theft Resource Center as soon as possible.
The IRS reminds taxpayers every year that they do not initiate communications through email. They will send letters, and attempt to reach you over the phone, but they will never email you asking for personal information. If you receive an email from someone claiming to be the IRS, do not reply, do not open any attachments and do not click any links.