What is ID Theft?
Identity Theft (ID Theft) is a form of fraud committed by someone who learns enough of your "personal information" to impersonate you. It's the fastest-growing crime in the US: 12.6 million adults in the US had their identities stolen in 2012.
What is Personal Information?
The most important parts of your personal information are: your full name, date & place of birth, and your Social Security number. Other personal information: the name of your employer, your mother's maiden name, your mailing address, e-mail address, telephone number, driver's license number, health insurance number, bank account number, credit card numbers & expiration dates.
What can they do with your personal information?
Seize control of your existing accounts
An imposter could seize control of your e-mail account (by calling customer support on the phone, saying you've lost your password). Looking at your e-mail, they'll usually discover some of your other on-line accounts. For many of those, they can go to an on-line form, claim there that you've lost your password, and have a new password sent back to your e-mail account (which they control).
Even without using the Internet, if they have an account number along with other personal information, they may be able to call your bank or other financial institution and request a transfer of funds out of your account. If you have an existing Homeowner's Equity Line of Credit (HELO), they could draw on the equity of your home. If you receive Social Security, your bank or the Social Security Administration may be told to re-direct your Social Security payments (possibly to a pre-paid debit card the thief controls).
Open new accounts in your name
It's actually easier to open new accounts under your name than to drain money from your existing accounts. All of these have been done by ID thieves:
- Open new credit card accounts in your name, based upon your credit record
- Open new bank accounts, into which they deposit a little money, then "overdraw"
- Open a new Homeowner's Equity Line of Credit to take money from the equity in your home
- If you receive Social Security and have not yet opened a Social Security Web Portal account, they can open one in your name (using your SSN and birth date), and re-direct your Social Security payments
- Buy a cell phone; you'll get the bill
- Open a utility account (cable TV, electricity, water, etc.) in your name, possibly elsewhere in the country
- Seek medical treatment and buy prescription drugs using your name
- File bogus tax returns under your name, to get tax "refunds"
- Open an unemployment claim in your name
- Pose as you, when arrested for a crime (which will give you a criminal record)
- Sell your Social Security number to an illegal immigrant so they can get a job and open credit accounts
How Do They Get Your Personal Information?
If your wallet or purse is stolen, thieves may have obtained enough personal information for ID Theft. Although they'll usually just use your cash and credit cards. You're also at risk if your home is burglarized and they take IDs or other documents with personal information (but again, most thieves won't take advantage of that; they'll just "fence" what they've stolen). After your home has been burglarized, or your wallet stolen, it you may want to put a put 90-day fraud alert [see below] on your credit records.
The most common way personal information is stolen is through Internet Fraud. Either by picking up information you enter on line, or by compromising your computer (gaining access to everything on it).
Or, increasingly often: from breaking into an on-line database which contains your personal information (along with that of many other people).
Just having parts of your personal information can help crooks find additional information. They can "Google" information about you, and look you up on LinkedIn or FaceBook or elsewhere on-line. Did you know: with only the last four digits of your Social Security number along with your date & state of birth, your complete Social Security number can usually be determined.
Shred all financial documents and credit applications (and tax documents) before you throw them away.
Limit the number of credit cards and identification cards you carry with you, to minimize the damage when your wallet or purse is stolen or lost. Never carry anything with your Social Security number on it.
Be very careful when providing personal information on-line or over the phone. See our page on Internet Fraud to learn more about guarding personal information on-line.
Monitor your credit profile. Annually, get a free copy of your credit report(s) via AnnualCreditReport. Consider paying for a credit monitoring service as well, which will tell you right away when someone opens a credit card account (or buys a cell phone) in your name.
Be alert to other signs of ID Theft. If you see bogus charges on only one credit card, don't just take that up with your credit card issuing bank, but also look carefully at all your other accounts. If more than one account has been compromised, or you get a call from a bill collector about an account in your name that you know about, those are clear signals that your ID has been stolen.
What To If Your Identity Has Been Stolen
- Identity Theft is a crime. Report it to the police. In Honolulu: call 911, ask for HPD's non-emergency line, and you want to make an ID Theft report to HPD's White Collar Crime unit. After you give them all the information they ask for, be sure to ask them for the report number and a copy of the report.
- Call any of the three major credit reporting bureaus (Equifax, Experian, or Trans Union) and request a "fraud alert". [Which will be good for only 90 days, but at that point -- if you have a police report -- you can request an "extended fraud alert" for up to 7 years.] You should only need to notify one agency, they should let the others know. But you can call all of them to be sure.
- You will immediately be able to get a free credit report from each reporting bureau (though you may have to contact each, separately, to ask for it). Get the credit reports and review them for any inconsistencies (and to discover any new credit accounts opened in your name that you don't know about). After 90 days -- at the same time you ask for the "extended fraud alert" -- get a 2nd, free credit report to see what has changed.
- Fill out an ID Theft Affidavit (at the Federal Trade Commission's Web site).
- Report all fraudulent transactions to creditors. Contact creditors for any account that has been tampered with, and deny each and every fraudulent transaction. For accounts opened without your knowledge, dispute everything, ask them to close the account and to remove it from your credit score. Send a copy of your ID Theft Affidavit (and, if they request, a copy of the police report as well) to each of those creditors.
- If your Social Security number has been compromised, notify the Social Security administration.
- Keep a log of everything you do: every contact you make, keeping track of each person's name, title and phone number (in case you need to re-contact them or refer to them in later correspondence). At least some of the organizations you'll contact via phone or Internet will also ask for something in writing. Keep copies of all of that.
- Most of all, have patience. It can take months to deal with everything, perhaps years before your credit can be fully restored.
[If you continue to have long-term problems despite the "fraud alert" on your credit records, consider putting a "credit freeze" on your credit records. A "fraud alert" simply notifies lenders -- when they get a copy of your credit report -- that they should carefully verify who you are before extending credit. With a "credit freeze", no one can see your credit report at all unless you specifically grant them access. Effectively making it impossible to grant you credit. Unlike "fraud alerts" -- free if documented with a police report -- a "credit freeze" will cost you not only a fee to set, and more fees each time you "unfreeze" it, even temporarily.]