Identity theft is a multi-billion dollar plague that affects millions of Americans each year.
Despair, helplessness and anger are a few of the feelings that only begin to express becoming the victim of a crime. Today, criminals have expanded their schemes in crimes. They are shifting from confrontational encounters and becoming silent predators, silently stealing identities.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, identity theft “occurs when someone uses your personally identifying information, like your name, Social Security number or credit card number, without your permission, to commit fraud or other crimes.”
Identity theft has been one of the fastest-growing crimes in the past decade. According to studies by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, nearly 8.6 million households in the United States had at least one individual become victim to identity theft. In a 2013 study by Javeline Strategy & Research, it was estimated that last year a total of $21 billion was stolen as a result of identity theft. The Committee on Ways and Means reported that the economic impact on the victim to resolve identity theft was between $500 to $1,200 and 30 to 60 hours to resolve issues.
There are many ways in which individuals can become prey for identity thieves. Predators use emails, text messages, phone calls and fake websites to lure people into providing sensitive information. Here is a list of a few things that criminals do to steal information:
Sort through co-workers' desks
Write false job applications
Make pretext, ruse or gag calls
Falstify rental and loan applications
Search public records
Surf the Internet
According to a recent report, Utah is especially unique since the state is ranked high in Internet access and availability.
Criminals are becoming more and more creative in obtaining stolen information. For example, earlier this month my in-laws received a phone call from a scammer. The individual who called stated that he had just infected their computer and that if they wanted to stop it from destroying everything, they needed to visit a website. While this was obviously a scam to them, many people fall for schemes like this.
Increased diligence and awareness are the greatest ways to prevent victimization. The State of Utah has developed a great tool to educate residents called Identity Theft Reporting Information System, or IRIS. IRIS provides detailed instructions on how to prevent and report identity theft and works diligently to educate Utahans about it.
But you don't have to go through a system to protect yourself from identity theft. Here are a number of free and easy ways to prevent these crimes:
Request a receipt when making purchases. If you do not get a receipt, this can open you up to victimization.
Inspect your bank statement. That's right, look at that piece of paper the bank sends each month. Check to see if there are any charges that you did not authorize. Somebody may have taken your money without you noticing by going into your bank with a fake ID and making withdrawals or skimming your credit card at a gas station.
Run a free credit check each year with Equifax, Experian and Transunion to see if there is anything out of the ordinary. The FCC recommends visiting www.annualcreditreport.com, calling 1-877-322-8228 or mailing Annual Credit Report Request Service at P.O. Box 105281 Atlanta, Ga., 30348-5281.
Shred all financial documents before discarding them.
Protect your Social Security number on applications or online websites.
Never give out information over the phone unless you know exactly who you are talking to. Use complex passwords on computers, laptops, phones and websites.
Securely store sensitive information.
Don’t simply toss mail as “ads” or “junk.” Identity thieves often apply for credit cards, and these credit card companies send documents to you. Verify what you are tossing away to ensure that it is not important.
Monitor your credit applications. If you apply for credit and you are denied for no reason, this too could be a red flag.
Mail your bills at a post office instead of through your home mailbox.
Safeguard documents like passports, IDs, birth certificates and Social Security cards.
Change your bank card PIN (and do not write your PIN where you keep your card).
If you become a victim of identity theft, there are things that you can do to resolve the issue. Here are a few tools that will help you get on track:
Place a 90-day fraud alert with the credit reporting agencies.
Opt-out of prescreen offers for fiveyears electronically (www.optoutprescreen.com) or indefinitely, by mail.
Close any bank accounts that have been compromised (if any).
File a local police report.
Contact the Federal Trade Commission and fill out an affidavit of identity theft (see below).
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While victimization may happen to you or a close associate, be proactive and diligent in protecting your identity. There are ways to reduce the financial risk and hardship that comes with resolving identity theft. Educate yourself by learning more from the resources and tools provided. Below is a list of websites that explain in greater detail:
State of Utah: http://idtheft.utah.gov
Travis J Smoot is a financial crimes investigator in Salt Lake City, Utah. He received his Master's in Criminal Justice from Boston University and Criminology Certificate at the University of Utah.