Identity Theft: How To Protect Yourself

Identity theft is one of those crimes that most people have heard of, but not everyone understands how it occurs. The act of committing this malicious crime may be simple or complex, and can bring great financial pain to its victim. Don’t let that victim be you.

Identity theft occurs when a person uses another person’s identity as well as personal financial information as their own. Purchases are typically made using the identity of the victim, with the intent to leave the victim responsible for the bill. This crime is done without the knowledge of the victim. When the victim finally becomes aware of the crime, the criminal has disappeared into oblivion, leaving behind a victim with ruined credit, a mountain of debt, and a tainted reputation. Not a pretty situation to be in.

In extreme cases, the implications of identity theft can result in the wrongful arrest of the victim. On the face of the evidence, it is easy for the police investigator to assume that the victim made multiple expensive purchases having absolutely no intention of ever paying. Criminals who engage in identity theft are clever and know the credit card system intimately. They know ways of charging far more than a credit limit on a single card. Without actual proof that identity theft has occurred, it can be assumed that the victim is guilty of the crimes committed under his name. Identity theft is a serious crime, and victims can suffer the implications and consequences of the crime for years to come.

Identity theft takes many different forms. Some cases involve a thief repeatedly withdrawing large sums of cash from another person’s bank account, until the account balance is nil. Other cases may involve the thief assuming another person’s name and using their personal information to obtain a loan.

Armed with the victim’s personal data, an identity thief can obtain a driver’s license, open new lines of credit and bank accounts, and even buy a car and get a mortgage. All paperwork, bills and financial statements from these transactions are sent to the thief’s temporary address, so the victim initially does not know that a crime has been committed in his name. Once the plan has been activated, the thief uses the victim’s credit line for all it is worth in the form of cash advances, loans and credit card debt without the intent to pay. All of these crimes occur with the thief hidden in a shroud of anonymity. Who is the criminal? All merchants assume he who he represents himself to be, but he is representing himself to be the victim. The actual identity of the criminal isn’t revealed. When the debts come to light, the victim is left holding the bag of bills and the thief has long since disappeared into complete anonymity. It can take years to recover, both financially and emotionally, from identity theft.

Here are some warning signs that you may have fallen victim to identity theft:

You are billed for a credit card that you did not open, although wiser criminals will not have the bill sent to you. There are unauthorized notice charges on your credit card statement. Bills or credit statements fail to arrive when you expect them. This can indicate that the address has been changed without your knowledge. The criminal does not want you to be aware while he is in the process of using your accounts, so he has the statements sent somewhere else, by going through the proper change of address procedures. Unauthorized transfers or withdrawals show on your bank statements. This is a huge red flag and should be investigated immediately. Collection agencies call about accounts you never opened. Again, this does not usually happen until after the criminal has disappeared and/or moved on to victimize another person. You receive calls or notices about merchandise you did not buy. Debts appear on your credit reports that you did not file. This is significant. Even though the criminal might have your statements mailed to a different location, you know your personal information and can check your credit report at any time. The criminal has no way to stop you from doing this.

AS you might imagine, identity theft is a nightmare come to life for the millions of people who have fallen victim to this horrendous crime. Sadly, despite stricter financial transaction processes, higher public awareness of the crime, and the imposition of state and federal laws, the number of identity theft victims continues to rise each year.

In the United States and Canada, many people have reported unauthorized persons withdrawing funds from their personal bank or financial accounts. More serious cases have seen victims reporting a thief who has totally taken over their identities. In these cases, thieves have run up huge debts and committed crimes, all under the name of the victim.

The United States Congress created a new federal law against identity theft in 1998. In spite of the tough laws now on the books, identity theft is more prevalent than ever. Once you have fallen victim, it is obviously too late to prevent the crime from being committed against you. In this instance, grandma was right: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. And that is an understatement.

Here are some steps to help you avoid being a victim of identity theft.

1. Shred any documents with personal information on them. Thieves are known to dig through household trash to find this information. Shred it to foil their attempts.

2. Be vary careful about giving out your social security number. Guard it like you would guard your life, because in a sense, you are guarding your financial life. Only give it out when absolutely necessary, and only to parties that are entirely trustworthy.

3. Be careful about storing personal financial data on your computer and sending it over the internet. Use passwords that do not make any sense. Most people use their birthdays, names of children, or other easy-to-guess types of passwords. Don’t make it easy for a criminal to get into your account info electronically.

4. Never place your tax return in your mailbox, stamped, with the flag up to let the postman know to pick up mail! Criminals are known to drive around neighborhoods during tax season looking for flags. Your tax return contains vital financial information. Always bring it to the post office to mail it.

5. Check your credit report regularly. Sign up for a plan if necessary. However, make sure that your inquiries will not be counted against your credit score. Too many inquiries in a short period will negatively affect your score, so make certain that your own inquiries to verify the safety of your file will not be counted against you.

Our personal records are stored in many different places in today’s world. Banks, hospitals, employers, government agencies, brokerage accounts, etc. all have our vital financial information within their records. Put into practice these five steps above, and only give your information to companies that you fully trust. By doing so, you’ll greatly decrease the odds that you’ll fall victim to identity theft.

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