Identity Theft: What You Need to Know
Identity theft cases surged in New York State in 2020, inflicting financial losses on individuals and threatening disruption to government programs as well as private financial institutions, according to Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Read the May 2021 New York State Comptroller's report The Increasing Threat of Identity Theft to learn more
Thieves with access to personal information – Social Security number, birth certificate, PIN or credit card numbers, even pre-approved credit card solicitations – can steal your identity and apply for credit in your name, racking up huge debts without you even knowing that it has happened…until it’s too late. Identity thieves also use individuals’ personally identifiable information for a variety of other purposes, including fraudulently obtaining medical services, unemployment insurance, prescription drugs or medical insurance coverage. To protect yourself, follow these suggestions:
Safeguard Your Personal Information:
- Request your free annual credit report from all three major agencies every year and check it carefully for suspicious activity. Order the reports online at www.annualcreditreport.com. You will go through a simple verification process and your reports will be mailed or emailed to you.
- Keep your Social Security card, birth certificate and any other important identification documentation in a secure place.
- Be cautious about where you leave any documents. Think of your bills and bank and credit card statements as direct access to your cash and secure them accordingly. Consider shredding sensitive documents rather than simply throwing them away. (Some thieves will go through garbage to find personal information).
- Make sure to lock up personal files at work and be aware of who has access to your workspace and employee information.
- Do not give out personal information over the phone unless you initiated the call or are absolutely certain with whom you are speaking. Ask how any information that you provide will be used and secured.
- Photocopy the contents of your wallet in case your wallet or purse is lost or stolen. Copy both sides of your license, credit cards, bank cards and all other pertinent information. Keep the copies in a secure place.
- Don’t carry credit and debit cards that you absolutely don’t need. This will minimize the potential damage if your wallet is lost or stolen. Be aware that some health benefit medical and pharmacy cards have your Social Security number imprinted on the front. If you don’t need to carry these with you, don’t.
- Memorize personal identification numbers (such as your ATM card PIN) and online passwords. Don’t keep those numbers or passwords in your wallet or purse. Never write them on the cards themselves! Avoid using easily available personal information like your own birthday, mother’s maiden name or consecutive numbers. If asked to provide your Social Security number, ask if another identifier can be used instead.
- When using your credit card in restaurants or stores, keep a constant eye on your card and who is handling it. Be aware of “swipe and theft” scams using card skimmers. A skimmer is a machine that records the information from the magnetic stripe on a credit card to be downloaded onto a personal computer later. Your card can be swiped on a skimmer by a dishonest employee and that data can then be used to make duplicate copies of your credit card.
- Be mindful of “shoulder surfers” when using ATMs and never use an ATM that looks like it has been tampered with or otherwise altered.
- Report lost or stolen credit, debit or ATM cards immediately.
Protect Your Bank Accounts and Your Mail:
- Whenever possible, place passwords on your accounts. Review your account statements on a regular basis and consider using online or phone balance and transaction review features. This will help you to quickly notice any discrepancies that could indicate fraudulent activity.
- Shred documents that contain personal information before discarding them. Shred all unwanted balance transfer checks and pre-approved offers for credit cards or loans before disposing of them.
- Be careful about information you provide on your personal checks. Never print your driver’s license or Social Security number on your checks.
- When ordering new checks, pick them up at the bank rather than having them mailed to your home. If you have a post office box, use that address on your checks rather than a home address. Store new and cancelled checks in a secure place not accessible to others.
- Do not write your account number on the outside of payment or deposit envelopes.
- Pay attention to your billing cycles. If you don’t get your bills in the mail on time, be suspicious and call the company to make sure that no one has changed your billing address or diverted your mail.
- Check your credit reports on a regular basis. Order a copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit-reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian and Trans Union) at least once a year. Confirm that the information they have about you is accurate and dispute anything that is not. Checking the facts will NOT affect your credit rating.
- Consumers can remove their names from the marketing lists of the three credit reporting bureaus by calling 1(888) 5-OPT OUT. This will reduce the amount of solicitation mailings you receive (such as pre-approved credit card applications).
- If you will be away from home for an extended period of time, call the U.S. Postal Service and ask that your mail be placed on “vacation hold.”
Protect Yourself on the Internet and Protect Your Computer:
- Install a firewall on your home computer to prevent hackers from obtaining personal identification and financial data from your hard drive. This is especially important if you connect to the Internet by DSL, cable or high-speed modem. If you use a broadband or DSL connection, call the supplier to make sure your modem is equipped with a feature called NAT, or Network Address Translation. This makes it harder for criminals on the Internet to find your computer.
- Install and regularly update virus protection software on your computer to prevent a worm or virus from causing your computer to send out files or other stored information.
- Password-protect your computer, cell phone and/or PDA (e.g.: Blackberry). Use a password made up of a combination of non-sequential numbers and letters and don’t use obvious words or dates.
- If your computer has a built-in encryption option for individual files or for your hard drives make sure that option is enabled or look into installing encryption software. Encryption will scramble your private information making it unreadable to unauthorized persons. Your computer’s standard log-on password protection won’t prevent a thief from accessing your hard drive if your computer is lost or stolen.
- Before disposing of your computer, remove data by using a strong "wipe" utility program. Do not rely on the "delete" function to remove files containing sensitive information.
- When shopping online, do business with companies that provide transaction security protection and carefully review privacy policies before making purchases.
- Make sure that you are actually on the website you wish to be on - some online “phishers” create bogus sites that mimic real ones in order to capture unwary shoppers’ personal information.
- Do not use your Social Security number on the Internet.
- When you are finished with any secure online session (such as online banking) always remember to log off or close your browser window.
- Do not invite trouble in by downloading files or clicking on hyperlinks or attachments that you are not expecting or that are sent from unfamiliar people or destinations. Even emails that appear to be from familiar and trusted sources can be fraudulent.
- If you must use a public computer, confirm first that it is not running a desktop search engine and that the proprietor has denied users administrative privileges so they can't install any programs that might be used to capture your emails or passwords.
If You Are a Victim of Identity Theft:
- File a police report at your local precinct; get your complaint number or a copy of your report.
- If your license is stolen, take your police report to your local DMV when you ask for a replacement. Ask them to attach a copy of the report to your records. If you have evidence another person got a license, registration or title certificate in your name ask for and file a Form FI-17 (Report of Unauthorized Use).
- Report lost or stolen checks, deposit tickets and/or bank statements immediately.
- Report suspicious activity and unauthorized charges immediately to all of your creditors by both phone and certified mail.
- Have them place a fraud alert in your file. A fraud alert generally lasts for 90 days, although it can be extended.
- Contact the Federal Trade Commission to file a complaint and create an Identity Theft Affidavit.
- If you are a victim of identity theft or think that you may be a victim, consider placing a "security freeze" in your file at each of the three major credit reporting agencies (Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian). It generally stops creditors from accessing your credit files to review your credit history, thus preventing any new credit from being opened for you, unless you authorize the agencies to allow access. The procedures for obtaining a security freeze are slightly different for each of the three credit reporting agencies, and for the security freeze to work it is necessary to obtain the freeze with each of the three agencies.
- Call the Social Security Administration’s fraud hotline at (800) 269-0271 or go to www.ssa.gov/oig. If you suspect that someone is using your Social Security number, you can check your earnings record by calling (800) 772-1213.
- If your bank account has been compromised at all, close the account completely and open a new one.
- If your checks have been lost or stolen contact a company called Scan (800) 262-7771 to find out if any bad checks have been passed in your name. Ask your bank to contact the major check verification companies and ask them to alert retailers not to accept your stolen checks or contact them directly at:&
Certegy Inc.: (800) 437-5120
TeleCheck: (800) 710-9898
International Check Services: (800) 526-5380
- Keep copies and detailed records of all of your correspondence!