Preventing Identity Theft

May 11, 2016

Millions of Americans fall victim to identity theft each year -- and their financial losses are in the billions. In 2015, an estimated 16.6 million Americans experienced identity theft, causing losses of $24.7 billion.

What can you do to help reduce your chances of having your identity stolen? The steps below can help you prevent significant losses.

1. Check your credit report every six months. You have the right to obtain a free copy of your credit report every 12 months from each of the three credit reporting bureaus -- Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. You can get them by going to www.annualcreditreport.com. Check thoroughly to ensure that there aren't any unidentified accounts on your report.

2. Place a freeze on your credit reports. This can help stop an identity thief from opening a credit card account under your name. You simply contact the three credit bureaus and request a credit freeze. This prevents lenders who don't already have a relationship with you from viewing your credit report. If they can't access your credit report, they won't issue a new account. There is often a fee to request a freeze, depending on your state of residence and whether you've ever been the victim of identity theft in the past.

3. Monitor your email. You want to be on the lookout for phishing scams, particularly those that appear to come from a credit card company, bank, retailer, or anyone else you do business with. Many of these emails will direct you to a phony website that will ask you to input sensitive data, such as your account numbers, passwords, and Social Security number.

4. Be careful online. When banking or shopping online, be sure to use websites that protect your financial information with encryption, particularly if you are using a public wireless network via a smartphone. Sites that are encrypted start with "https." The "s" stands for secure. Also be sure to use anti-virus and anti-spyware software.

What do you do if your identity is stolen? First, call one of the three credit bureaus and ask them to place a 90-day fraud alert on your credit report. They must contact the other two bureaus to place fraud alerts on your reports. You also want to get a copy of all three credit reports.
Second, file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). You'll create an FTC Affidavit, which you should then take to your local police department and file a police report. Your copy of the FTC Affidavit and the police report make up an Identity Theft Report, which can help you:

• Get fraudulent information removed from your credit report.
• Stop companies from collecting debts caused by the theft.
• Get information about accounts that were illegally opened in your name.

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