Identity theft takes place when someone uses your name and/or other identifying information to engage in fraud, open an account, or commit another crime without your knowledge. They do this by obtaining your name, social security number, address, credit card or bank account number by stealing your mail, overhearing a phone conversation, hacking into your computer, and through phone and email scams.
The kinds of fraud and other illegal activities an identity thief may engage in include:
- Using your credit or debit card account number to go on a spending spree, purchasing "big ticket" items such as electronics and jewelry, which they can sell more easily.
- Using your identifying information to open and run up a credit card account. When the account becomes delinquent, it shows up as such on your credit report. A skillful identity thief will change the mailing address for the account so you do not receive the credit card bills, thus delaying the time by which you discover the problem.
- Opening a bank account in your name and writing bad checks on it.
- Using your identifying information to counterfeit checks and other securities.
- Giving your name to the police after an arrest. Then after being released, not showing up for their court date, possibly triggering an arrest warrant issued in your name.
- Establishing phone service in your name.
- Taking out an auto loan in your name.
- Filing for bankruptcy in your name to avoid being evicted or paying debts they've incurred.
There are certain steps you can take to avoid becoming a victim of identity theft. Here are a few of them:
- Do not provide personal information such as your social security number, account numbers, or mother's maiden name over the Internet or the telephone unless you trust the recipient and you know the information and its transmittal is secure. Make sure the website is legitimate and do not send information from a web page unless its address (url) at the top of the page begins with https://
- Keep personal information in your home where guests, visitors, and service personnel cannot easily access it.
- Keep your social security number and/or card in a safe place at home, not in your wallet.
- Identity thieves may look for personal information in your trash. Shred all materials that contain sensitive information before throwing it out. This includes receipts, bank statements, medical bills, checks, and even pre-screened credit card offers.
- Do not open emails or email attachments if you are not familiar with the email address.
If you find that you or your loved one has become the victim of identity theft, there are several steps you can take, including: