The Federal Trade Commission recently reported in its Consumer Sentinel that identity theft complaints increased to 369,132 for the year ended December 31, 2012. This appears to be a small number; but it grew by 25% over 2011. As with other fraud schemes, experts generally agree that identity theft is extremely under-reported for a number of reasons. The increased reporting reflects greater awareness of the issue; and, to a certain degree, increased frequency. Since identity theft is not going away, it behooves us to consider how thieves steal identities, what can be done to prevent such theft, and how to take back identities that have been stolen.
As a part of daily life, everyone leaves a trail of his / her personal information. This information includes one’s name, address, social security number, bank accounts, credit cards, and debit cards. We send and receive this information through the mail, via the internet, and other means. Mundane daily transactions carry one’s personal information and expose it to the possibility of theft. Thieves position themselves where they can access other’s personal information as it is transmitted. Some of the more prevalent ways that thieves get access to a victim’s personal information are:
1. Stealing your wallet or purse.
2. Intercepting your incoming or outgoing mail.
3. Taking information that his / her employer has obtained legitimately from the victim.
4. Sifting through the victim’s trash (i.e., dumpster diving).
5. Watching the victim enter log-in and passwords to gain access (i.e., shoulder surfing).
6. Stealing credit / debit card information using a magnetic strip reader (i.e., skimming).
7. Posing as a financial institution or other business to get you to reveal your personal information online (i.e., phishing). If this scam is perpetrating using a phone, it is known as pre-texting.
8. Hacking into a business’s information system (e.g., compromising of Target’s credit card processing system).
Certain precautions can mitigate or prevent the theft of one’s identity. Such preventive measures include:
1. Order your credit report annually from each of the three major credit reporting bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion). One free report can be ordered directly from each bureau per year.
2. Put passwords on all bank, credit card, debit card, phone, and other utility accounts. Use strong passwords that cannot be easily deciphered. If allowed, use numbers, symbols, upper and lower case letters. Do not use the same passwords on multiple accounts. Do not write passwords down.
3. Mail checks and correspondence containing personal information from U.S. Postal Service mailbox. Do not use your mailbox at home. Consider getting a post office box for bills and other sensitive correspondence.
4. Carry only the identification, credit cards, and debit cards that you truly need. Never carry your social security card or number.
5. Avoid giving out your social security number. Request to use another form of identification.
6. Have your social security number removed from your driver’s license.
7. Shred all documents with personal information before throwing it in the trash. This includes bills, receipts, and credit card offers.
8. Review every transaction on your bank and credit card statements to verify authenticity.
9. Follow up on any bills or statements that are late in arriving at your mailbox.
10. If you are contacted by phone or email regarding one of your accounts, do not share any personal information. Contact the account issuer’s fraud reporting department directly to investigate the issue.
11. Consider obtaining insurance against identity theft.
If you suspect that your identity has been stolen, you should take the following actions:
1. Place an initial fraud alert. Contact the fraud department of one of the three credit reporting bureaus and request that an initial fraud alert be placed on your credit report. Verify that they will contact the other two bureaus. The fraud alert will require businesses to verify your identity before extending credit. This will generally require them to contact you directly.
2. Order your credit reports from the three credit reporting bureaus.
3. Contact your local police department and file a report of the theft.
4. Submit an Identity Theft Affidavit to the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office. See their website (http://www.ago.state.ms.us/wp-content/uploads/2013/IdTheftBook.pdf).
5. Contact the fraud department for any credit cards, debit cards, or other accounts that you believe may have been compromised or stolen. Inform them of the theft and cancel existing cards / accounts and have new ones issued. Secure them with a personal identification number (“PIN”) or password.
The websites for the Federal Trade Commission and the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office have exhaustive information on preventing and responding to identity theft. Consult these websites for further information.
» Charley Rafferty is a partner at GranthamPoole CPA firm.