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identity theft prevention

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How can I prevent identity theft from happening to me?
As with any crime, you can't guarantee that you will never be a victim, but you can minimize your risk. By managing your personal information widely, cautiously and with an awareness of the issue, you can help guard against identity theft.

Don't give out personal information on the phone, through the mail or over the Internet unless you've initiated the contact or are sure you know who you're dealing with. Identity thieves may pose as representatives of banks, Internet service providers (ISPs) and even government agencies to get you to reveal your SSN, mother's maiden name, account numbers, and other identifying information. Before you share any personal information, confirm that you are dealing with a legitimate organization. You can check the organization's Web site as many companies post scam alerts when their name is used improperly, or you can call customer service using the number listed on your account statement or in the telephone book.

Don't carry your SSN card; leave it in a secure place.

Secure personal information in your home, especially if you have roommates, employ outside help or are having service work done in your home.

Guard your mail and trash from theft

Deposit outgoing mail in post office collection boxes or at your local post office, rather than in an unsecured mailbox. Promptly remove mail from your mailbox. If you're planning to be away from home and can't pick up your mail, call the U.S. Postal Service at 1-800-275-8777 to request a vacation hold. The Postal Service will hold your mail at your local post office until you can pick it up or are home to receive it.

To thwart an identity thief who may pick through your trash or recycling bins to capture your personal information, tear or shred your charge receipts, copies of credit applications, insurance forms, physician statements, checks and bank statements, expired charge cards that you're discarding, and credit offers you get in the mail. If you do not use the pre-screened credit card offers you receive in the mail, you can opt out by calling 1-888-5-OPTOUT (1-888-567- 8688). Please note that you will be asked for your Social Security number in order for the credit bureaus to identify your file so that they can remove you from their lists and you still may receive some credit offers because some companies use different lists from the credit bureaus’ lists. For more information, see How can I prevent companies from using my personal information for marketing?

Carry only the identification information and the number of credit and debit cards that you'll actually need.

Place passwords on your credit card, bank and phone accounts. Avoid using easily available information like your mother's maiden name, your birth date, the last four digits of your SSN or your phone number, or a series of consecutive numbers. When opening new accounts, you may find that many businesses still have a line on their applications for your mother's maiden name. Use a password instead.

Ask about information security procedures in your workplace or at businesses, doctor's offices or other institutions that collect personally identifying information from you. Find out who has access to your personal information and verify that it is handled securely. Ask about the disposal procedures for those records as well. Find out if your information will be shared with anyone else. If so, ask if you can keep your information confidential.

Give your SSN only when absolutely necessary. Ask to use other types of identifiers when possible. If your state uses your SSN as your driver's license number, ask to substitute another number. Do the same if your health insurance company uses your SSN as your account number.

Pay attention to your billing cycles. Follow up with creditors if your bills don't arrive on time. A missing bill could mean an identity thief has taken over your account and changed your billing address to cover his tracks.

Be wary of promotional scams. Identity thieves may use phony offers to get you to give them your personal information.

Keep your purse or wallet in a safe place at work
as well as any copies you may keep of administrative forms that contain your sensitive personal information.

Cancel all unused credit accounts.

When ordering new checks, pick them up at the bank, rather than having them sent to your home mailbox.

What should I do if someone has stolen or scammed my personal information or identification documents?

If your information or identification documents were stolen or scammed, you have an opportunity to prevent the misuse of that information if you can take action quickly.

For financial account information such as credit card or bank account information: Close those accounts immediately. When you open new ones, place passwords on these accounts. Avoid using your mother’s maiden name, your birth date, the last four digits of your SSN or your phone number, or a series of consecutive numbers.

For SSNs: Call the toll-free fraud number of any one of the three major credit bureaus and place a fraud alert on your credit reports. This can help prevent an identity thief from opening new credit accounts in your name. See What are fraud alerts and victim statements?

To replace an SSN card: Call the Social Security Administration at 1-800-772-1213 to get a replacement.

For driver's license or other identification documents: Contact the issuing agency. Follow their procedures to place fraud flags and to get replacements.
Once you have taken these precautions, there really isn't anything more you need to do except to check for the signs that your information is being misused. See How can I tell if I'm a victim of identity theft? and Are there any other steps I can take to make sure I'm not an identity theft victim? You don't have to file an identity theft report with the police or with the FTC until you find out if your information is actually being misused. If another crime was committed, such as theft of your purse or wallet or your house or car was broken into, report that crime to the police.

I have a computer and use the Internet. What should I be concerned about?
If you're storing personal information such as SSNs, financial records, tax returns, birth dates, or bank account numbers in your computer, the following tips can help you keep your computer and your personal information safe from intruders:

  • Update your virus protection software regularly, or when a new virus alert is announced. Computer viruses can have a variety of damaging effects, including introducing program code that causes your computer to send out files or other stored information. Be on the alert for security repairs and patches that you can download from your operating system's Web site.
  • Do not download files sent to you by strangers or click on hyperlinks from people you don't know. Opening a file could expose your system to a computer virus or a program that could hijack your modem.
  • Use a firewall program, especially if you use a high-speed Internet connection like cable, DSL or T-1, which leaves your computer connected to the Internet 24 hours a day. The firewall program will allow you to stop uninvited guests from accessing your computer. Without it, hackers can take over your computer and access your personal information stored on it or use it to commit other crimes.
  • Use a secure browser - software that encrypts or scrambles information you send over the Internet - to guard the security of your online transactions. Be sure your browser has the most up-to-date encryption capabilities by using the latest version available from the manufacturer. When submitting information, look for the "lock" icon on the browser's status bar to be sure your information is secure during transmission.
  • Try not to store financial information on your laptop unless absolutely necessary. If you do, use a strong password - a combination of letters (upper and lower case), numbers and symbols. Don't use an automatic log-in feature which saves your user name and password so you don't have to enter them each time you log-in or enter a site. And always log off when you're finished. That way, if your laptop gets stolen, it's harder for the thief to access your personal information.
  • Before you dispose of a computer, delete personal information. Deleting files using the keyboard or mouse commands may not be enough because the files may stay on the computer's hard drive, where they may be easily retrieved. Use a "wipe" utility program to overwrite the entire hard drive. It makes the files unrecoverable. For more information, see Clearing Information From Your Computer's Hard Drive ( from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
  • Look for Web site privacy policies. They answer questions about maintaining accuracy, access, security, and control of personal information collected by the site, as well as how information will be used, and whether it will be provided to third parties. If you don't see a privacy policy, consider surfing elsewhere. For more information, see Site-Seeing on the Internet: A Traveler's Guide to Cyberspace
    How can I prevent companies from using my personal information for marketing?
    More organizations are offering consumers choices about how their personal information is used. For example, many let you "opt out" of having your information shared with others or used for marketing purposes. For more information see Privacy: What You Do Know Can Protect You and Privacy Choices for Your Personal Financial Information. You also can visit the FTC websites Privacy Initiatives and National Do Not Call Registry.

  • When should I provide my Social Security number? Your employer and financial institution will likely need your SSN for wage and tax reporting purposes. Other businesses may ask you for your SSN to do a credit check, like when you apply for a car loan. Sometimes, however, they simply want your SSN for general record keeping. If someone asks for your SSN, ask the following questions:

    Why do you need it?

    How will it be used?

    How do you protect it from being stolen?

    What will happen if I don't give it to you?

    If you don't provide your SSN, some businesses may not provide you with the service or benefit you want. Getting satisfactory answers to your questions, though, will help you to decide whether you want to share your SSN with the business.

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