You know there is only one you. DNA analysis can even prove it scientifically. Even so, a crafty criminal may be able to "clone" you for purposes of committing fraud. With sufficient information, a con artist can become "you" and use your identity to order new credit cards, make counterfeit cards or checks, or otherwise go on a spending spree in your name. It's called identity theft or ID theft, and it's a serious problem. Here's why.
First, despite the efforts of law enforcement, ID theft is becoming more sophisticated and the number of new victims is growing. In general, consumers are protected against liability for unauthorized accounts or transactions under federal and state law and by financial industry practices. However, innocent victims of ID theft sometimes do suffer losses. And if the crime is not detected early, people may face months or years cleaning up the damage to their reputation and credit rating, and sometimes they lose out on loans, jobs and other opportunities in the meantime. The evolution of ID theft includes the spread of fraudulent "phishing" e-mails. These are unsolicited e-mails purportedly from a legitimate source - even a trusted government agency such as the FDIC - attempting to trick you into divulging personal information. There are some steps you can take, however, to limit your exposure to identity theft.
Protect your Social Security number (SSN), credit card and debit card numbers, PINs (personal identification numbers), passwords and other personal information. Never provide this information in response to an unsolicited phone call, fax, letter or e-mail - no matter how friendly or official the circumstances may appear.
In case your wallet gets lost or stolen, only carry the identification, checks, credit cards or debit cards you really need. The rest, including your Social Security card, are best kept in a safe place. Also, be extra careful if you have housemates or if you let workers into your house because they sometimes are in the best position to find personal information and use it without your knowledge.
Protect your incoming and outgoing mail. Chances are that your mail carrier will deliver a credit card or bank statement, an envelope containing a check, or other items that can be very valuable to a thief. Or perhaps you'll put in the mail a check or papers containing account numbers or other personal financial information. Try to use a locked mailbox or other secure location. If that's not possible, promptly remove mail that's been delivered or move the mailbox to a safer place. When it comes to outgoing mail, a mailbox that holds your outgoing bills is a prime target for thieves who cruise neighborhoods looking for account information and even worse is putting up the flag on a mailbox to indicate there is outgoing mail sitting there. Instead, try to always deliver your mail to the post office.
Keep a close watch on your bank account statements and credit card bills. Monitor these statements each month and contact your financial institution immediately if there's a discrepancy in your records or if you notice something suspicious, such as a missing payment or an unauthorized withdrawal. While federal and state laws may limit your losses if you're a victim of fraud or theft, your protections may be stronger if you report the problem quickly and in writing. You also avoid the hassle and inconvenience of straightening things out.
Avoid ID theft on the Internet. "Hackers" and scam artists are finding ways to steal private information transmitted over the Internet or stored on computer systems. But you can do a lot to protect yourself while shopping, banking, e-mailing or surfing on the web. For example, never provide bank account or other personal information in response to an unsolicited e-mail or when visiting a Web site that doesn't explain how your personal information would be protected.
Phishing scams that arrive by e-mail typically ask you to "update" your account information. But don't fall for this ruse. Legitimate organizations wouldn't ask you for these details - they already have the necessary information or they can obtain it in other ways. Don't respond to these e-mails and don't open any attachments unless you independently confirm the validity of the request by contacting the legitimate organization the way you usually would, not by using the e-mail address, web site or phone number provided in the email. If you believe the e-mail is fraudulent, consider bringing it to the attention of the Federal Trade Commission. And if you do open and respond to a phony e-mail, contact your financial institution like Fidelity Bank immediately.
Remember, email is not a secure form of communication. So feel free to use your email, but don’t use it to send or receive confidential information. And if you follow the four basic steps listed, you can protect yourself from most phishing and other email scams.
Following these steps will help protect you from the most common forms of identity theft while surfing the Internet.
Review your credit record and monitor for fraudulent activity. Your credit report, which is prepared by a credit bureau, summarizes your history of paying debts and other bills. Credit reports are used by lenders, employers and others who, by law, have a legitimate need for the information. Each individual is allowed to get one free credit report each year from each of the three major credit bureaus that operate nationwide — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — with just a single phone call, letter or e-mail. After you get your credit report, look for warning signs of actual or potential ID theft. These include mention of a credit card, loan or lease you never signed up for, and requests for a copy of your credit record from someone you don't recognize (which could be a sign that a con artist is snooping around for personal information).
Your personal and financial information can be as good as cash to a criminal. So, take ID theft seriously. Start by following our simple suggestions for keeping your sensitive information under wraps. It's a lot easier to rethink your habits and behaviors now than to repair the damage after identity theft occurs.