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September 2002

Q: I've heard that identity theft is a growing problem. How can I prevent becoming a victim?

A: Identity theft occurs when someone uses your name and personal information (such as your social security number, credit card number, or drivers license number) to commit fraud or theft. An identity thief can exploit your personal information in many ways. For example, the thief might open a new bank account in your name, then use it to write bad checks. Or the thief might open a credit card or cell phone account in your name and run up charges that will never be paid. Whatever the means, the result is the same: the debts and delinquencies appear on YOUR credit report.

Identity theft is on the rise, but you can minimize the risk of becoming a victim. In general, control the distribution of all personal information: know who you release it to and why. If it's in print, be mindful of where those papers are and, ultimately, how they are discarded. Here are some specific safeguards to consider:

  • Check your credit reports once a year for unauthorized activity. The three major credit-reporting bureaus you should contact are Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion.

  • Monitor your mailbox, because thieves may obtain your information by stealing or redirecting your mail. Remove your mail promptly, and note any unexpected gaps in delivery--a thief can file a temporary address change in your name. If you suspect foul play, contact your local post office to find out if any if a change of address was submitted for you.

  • Don't just discard your mail: shred it. A crosscut paper shredder works best. This is especially important for pre-approved credit card offers (as well as credit card receipts).

  • Don't carry your social security number or bank passwords in your wallet. A stolen wallet can provide a thief with much more than simply the cash inside.

  • Remove your name from marketing lists. Many companies that you do business with will sell or rent your name to others, creating another venue for uncontrolled distribution of your personal information. Contact the companies you work with and request that they remove your name from these lists. You can reduce the number of pre-approved credit card offers you receive by contacting 888-5OPT OUT. Also, be sure to read this month's Resource Link for further information from the Direct Marketing Association.

  • Never provide telephone solicitors with personal information unless you place the call and can verify who you are speaking to.

  • Be cautious about providing personal information on the web, especially when registering for free services or publications; this provides a way for companies to collect your personal information. The companies may use the information legitimately, but those they rent or sell to may not. Read the privacy policies to understand how your information will be used and with whom it may be shared. If your information may be shared, look for an option that allows you to request confidentiality. (Be assured that IRA.com fully respects your privacy and does not sell, rent, or otherwise share any personal information we collect without permission from you or in accordance with the law.)

If you are a victim of identity theft, act immediately. Report it to the police and to the credit reporting bureaus listed above. The credit reporting bureaus can help you determine if new unauthorized accounts have been opened and they will issue a fraud alert to stop it. If new accounts already exist, contact the companies involved and send a written statement explaining that this is a case of identity theft (you have the right to examine all application and transaction documents). Also, contact the companies and creditors you do business with and freeze the activity on all appropriate accounts.

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