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Identity Theft - What Is It and How to Protect Yourself

 You may ask, what is "identity theft" and how does this affect me?  Theft of identity is when someone else uses personal identification information about you, for example, your social security number and date of birth, to apply for credit, open bank accounts or make unauthorized purchases.

Theft of identity is fast becoming the most prevalent and costly financial crime in the nation. It is estimated that more than 40,000 people have their identity stolen each year, costing consumers and the financial industry billions of dollars.

Why is it important? Often times, consumers are not aware that their identities have been stolen and how it may affect their lives. If someone has fraudulently obtained a credit card in your name, he/she may be ruining your credit and your reputation.

Unfortunately, you may not find out until damage has been done; when you are rejected for a mortgage or a loan or denied an employment opportunity.

Although it's impossible to guarantee that your personal information will not get stolen, my office has developed this tip card to provide advice on steps consumers can take to reduce the chances of it happening.

For more information about what to do if you believe you've been a victim of identity theft of if you have any other credit related question, you can contact the office of New York State Attorney General at (800) 771-7755 or

Below are some things you can do:

Be very careful about to whom you give out personal identification information, such as your mother's maiden name and your Social Security Number, ask if it can be kept confidential. Inquire into how it will be used and with whom it will be shared.

Never provide any personal, bank account or credit card information to anyone who contacts you through a telephone solicitation. Instead, it is advisable to demand they mail you information so that you can further research the company and their products and services.

Keep items with personal information in a safe place. Keep a list of all credit cards, account numbers, expiration dates, and the customer service phone numbers in a secure place so that you can quickly contact your creditors in case your cards are lost or stolen.

Tear Up/Destroy all ATM and bank receipts, old insurance forms, bank checks, expired credit cards, and any other papers that include personal information, identification, and account numbers about you. This includes pre-approved credit card solicitations! Thieves oftentimes search through your garbage to find these forms and information and use it to apply for credit in your name.

Minimize the number of credit cards and other items with personal information printed on them that you carry. Cancel all inactive accounts. Even though you do not use them, those accounts appear on your credit report, which can be used by thieves.

Do not leave envelopes containing your checks in your home mailbox, unless it's secured. Due to the increased risk of theft, it is best to mail bills and other sensitive items at the post office, rather than from your residence.

Social Security Number: Give it out only when necessary. Ask to use other types of identifiers when possible. DO NOT store your Social Security Card in your wallet.

When creating passwords or PINs, do not use the last four digits of your Social Security Number, your birth date, middle name, mother's maiden name, address or anything else that could be discovered easily by thieves.

To decrease the number of unsolicited credit card applications that you receive (and the chances of these applications being stolen), call (888) 5OPT-OUT to have your name removed from marketing lists sold by credit bureaus.

Monitoring your credit card statements and your credit report are the most important steps you can take to safeguard your credit identity.  Although it costs some money, it is a good idea to review a copy of your credit report at least once a year by contacting the following credit bureaus:, ChoicePoint (previously Equifax) (800) 685-1111; Experian 888 397 3742, and Trans Union (800) 916-8800.

If you fall victim to an identity thief, these tips could save you some headache and money:

If you're a victim, here are tips that could help clear your name

  • Get a police report.

  • Insist that credit-card companies send you copies of application and credit slips and the paperwork that links your name to the identity thief. Talk to the credit-card company's fraud investigator, not a customer-service representative.

  • Contact - by telephone and letter - all credit-reporting agencies that your thief might target, including department stores, utilities and credit-card issuers.

  • Carefully monitor your mail and credit-card bills for evidence of new fraudulent activity.

  • Start a log of your contacts with authorities and financial institutions.

  • Follow up with creditors if your bills don't arrive on time. A missing credit-card bill could mean an identity thief has commandeered your account and changed your billing address to cover his tracks.

  • Ask creditors to put a "fraud alert" on your account and add a "victim's statement" to your file requesting creditors to contact you before opening new accounts in your name.

  • File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission by contacting the FTC's Identity Theft Hot line at 877-IDTHEFT (438-4338); online at; or by mail at

Identity Theft Clearinghouse, Federal Trade Commission,
600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW,
Washington DC 20580.

To prevent identity theft, regularly check your credit record. Many victims don't learn for months or even years that they've been victimized until they are denied credit or employment, are threatened by collection companies or arrested for a crime they didn't commit. Order your credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus each year and make sure all the information is correct. The bureaus are: Equifax 800-525-6285; Experian 888-397-3742; and TransUnion 800-680-7289.

Have your name removed from marketing lists so you don't receive pre-approved offers of credit that thugs could steal. Buy a paper shredder to destroy unwanted mail.

Carry minimal personal information. Don't give out personal information such as your Social Security or driver's license numbers unless required by law.

Don't share personal information online. Change your computer passwords often.

Lock your mailbox. Stealing mail is a popular method of identity thieves.

Get credit cards and business cards with your photo on them.

Copyright 1999  All rights reserved.

Revised; July 07, 2005

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