Protecting yourself from identity theft

AVOIDING IDENTITY THEFT

  1. Do not disclose your full nine-digit Social Security number unless absolutely necessary, and never use it as an identifier or password. Question those who ask for it.
  2. Avoid paper billing by requesting secure electronic statements instead. If you require hard copies, you can print and store them safely without risking mail theft.
  3. Lock your mailbox if it's lockable.
  4. Shred documents containing personal information (name, account numbers, social security number, birth date) before throwing them away. 
  5. Configure your computer and/or smartphone to require a password for use, and set another password for sensitive files. Use unique passwords that include a combination of letters, numbers, and symbols. Do not use your birth date, a close relative's birth date, or a combination of letters and numbers on Splashdata's annual list of the most stolen passwords.
  6. Avoid using the same password for different accounts, and change your passwords once or twice per year.
  7. Install and update antivirus, anti-malware, and security programs on all computers, tablets, and smartphones.
  8. Don’t disclose information commonly used to verify your identity on social networking sites, such as date of birth, city of birth, mother’s maiden name, name of high school, etc. If you do, don't use that information to verify your identity.
  9. Avoid using credit or debit cards or conducting online banking transactions or making purchases, paying bills, or sending sensitive information over unsecured WiFi networks (e.g., any network without a password log-in, such as on trains, at airports, coffee shops, or hotels).
  10. Disable Bluetooth connections on devices when not in use.
  11. Watch out for “phishing” and other “social engineering” scams. Phishing is when identity thieves request personal information by pretending to be a legitimate entity, such as a bank or the IRS. Ignore unsolicited requests for personal information by email or over the phone, and only contact entities by means you know to be authentic. Do not contact an entity by clicking a link sent as part of an email requesting personal information, because phishers often link to authentic-looking, fake webpages. You can also call the phone number on the back of a card previously issued to you, or call the phone number on an old statement from that issuer. 
  12. Fight “skimmers.” Do not give your debit card to a restaurant server or anyone who could have a hand-held skimming device out of sight. When using an ATM, look for suspicious cameras and holes, and touch to confirm that extra parts (loose or slightly different colors) have not been installed over the card reader. Always cover your hand while hand typing a PIN, and avoid using ATMs in secluded locations.
  13. When accessing financial information on your smartphone, only use apps authorized by your bank or published by reputable app makers. Apps that show thousands of downloads are probably safe. Do not access apps on public open wi-fi.
  14. Place security, or credit freezes, on your credit report. Our separate “security freeze” tips explain how to guarantee peace of mind against new account identity theft by freezing your credit reports, then thawing them only when you are in the credit markets. A creditor will deny credit to an imposter who applies for credit using the name and Social Security Number of a consumer who has placed a freeze.

DETECTING IDENTITY THEFT

  1. Check your monthly statements for unauthorized charges. Be suspicious of phone calls about surprise debts.
  2. Sign up to receive email and/or text notifications of account activity and changes to account information.
  3. Instead of paying for over-priced subscription credit monitoring, use your free annual credit reports by law as your own credit monitoring service. Every 12 months, federal law gives you the right to receive one free credit report from each of the three main consumer reporting agencies, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Instead of requesting three at the same time, request one credit report from one of the bureaus every four months. Verify that the information is correct, and an account has not been opened without your knowledge. Free credit reports are available online at AnnualCreditReport.com or by calling 1-877-322-8228. Seven states – Colorado, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey and Vermont also provide an additional free report by state law, available by contacting each bureau directly.

Types of Identity Theft:

Federal law recognizes two sorts of identity theft—existing account fraud and new account (account takeover) identity theft.

Existing Account Fraud: Victims of data breaches where only their account numbers were taken are well-protected by law, although victims of lost debit card numbers may face bounced checks and cash flow problems until the bank replaces their funds. The Electronic Funds Transfer Act (EFTA) provides for no liability if you notify the financial institution within 60 days if only your debit card numbers are stolen. However, if you actually llose a debit card or other device that can access your bank account, your liability could be up to $500 if you fail to notify the bank within 2 days of finding out about the loss and could increase even higher if you fail to notify the bank within 60 days. Under the separate Truth In Lending Act, credit card customers are always well protected by law, never facing liability of greater than $50 for fraudulent use of a card.

New Account Identity Theft: A thief who obtains your Social Security Number may attempt to open new accounts in your name. This form of identity theft is difficult to clear up. A thief who obtains your email address may contact you in a phishing scam to try and trick you into providing your SSN and birth date, which are the keys to new account identity theft. Thieves apply for credit with your name, your SSN and their own address. The creditor then obtains a credit report and issues credit to the thief.

Be Wary of New Types of Identity Theft: Note that online tax preparers and the IRS itself have been hacked, resulting in tax refund fraud. Health insurance data breaches may result in medical services theft. A federal agency, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), has recently been breached. Detailed security clearance dossiers that were taken provide thieves with the opportunity to commit new account identity theft and could subject victims to reputational risk and emotional harms, since information on possible marital affairs, drug and alcohol abuse treatment, previous arrests even without convictions, may have been taken.

WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU DETECT NEW ACCOUNT IDENTITY THEFT

Step 1: Notify your financial institutions.

If you discover that your wallet, checkbook, credit card or other sensitive information has been lost or stolen, immediately notify the issuing bank, credit card issuer, or relevant institution to close all existing accounts. 

Step 2: Get an Identify Theft Affidavit.

If you suspect identity theft, report it to the Federal Trade Commission using the online complaint form or by calling 1-877-ID-THEFT. When making the report, you will be given an option to receive an Identity Theft Affidavit. This document, together with the police report, will be critical to minimizing the damage.

Step 3: File a police report.

If you believe you are a victim of identity theft, file a report with your local police department. When you make the report, bring a copy of the Identity Theft Affidavit. The police report will be important for insurance purposes. Keep copies of the police report and Identity Theft Affidavit.

Step 4: Contact the three major credit reporting companies and place a fraud alert on your accounts. If you haven’t already, it’s time to place a security freeze.

An important next step is to place a fraud alert and a security freeze on your credit report. Placing a fraud alert tells businesses checking your credit rating that there may be fraud involved in the account. The fraud alert must be renewed after 90 days, and it entitles you to receive one free credit report from each of the main agencies. The security freeze stops anyone from seeing your credit report without your permission. Alerts and freezes can be placed by contacting the toll-free fraud number of any of the three consumer reporting companies noted below. Initiating a credit freeze does not impact your credit score.

  • TransUnion: 1-800-680-7289; www.transunion.com; Fraud Victim Assistance Division, P.O. Box 6790, Fullerton, CA 92834-6790
  • Equifax: 1-800-525-6285; www.equifax.com; P.O. Box 740241, Atlanta, GA 30374-0241
  • Experian: 1-888-EXPERIAN (397-3742); www.experian.com; P.O. Box 9554, Allen, TX 75013

Step 5: If your social security number was stolen, contact the Social Security Administration.

File a report and access resources at www.idtheft.gov. You can also call 1-800-772-1213.

MORE IDENTITY THEFT RESOURCES


 

Issue updates

News Release | U.S. PIRG | Consumer Protection

Consumer Advocates Concerned By Court Ruling Overturning Ban on High-Powered Magnets

We've joined leading consumer and pediatrician organizations in a joint news release with a sharp critique of a U.S. appellate court decision overturning a U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission ban on the sale of high-powered small magnets (some as small as BBs) that pose a severe ingestion problem for children and youth. As our Trouble In Toyland report released on November 22 pointed out: "Nearly 80 percent of high-powered magnet ingestions require invasive medical intervention, either through an endoscopy, surgery, or both. In comparison, only 10 to 20 percent of other foreign body ingestions require endoscopic intervention and almost none require surgery."

> Keep Reading
Report | U.S. PIRG EDUCATION FUND | Consumer Protection

Trouble In Toyland 2016

For more than 30 years, U.S. PIRG Education Fund has conducted an annual survey of toy safety. These reports have led to more than 150 recalls and other regulatory actions over the years, and have helped educate the public and policymakers on the need for continued action to protect the health and wellbeing of children.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Consumer Protection

Fight Against Unfair ATM Surcharge Fees Heads to the U.S. Supreme Court | Michael Landis

Forcing consumers to pay twice to withdraw their money once is wrong. And blocking ATM owners from lowering their fees? That’s absurd, and it’s why we weighed in with a legal “friend of the court” brief.

> Keep Reading
News Release | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Consumer Protection

Statement on today’s final VW settlement involving about 475,000 2.0-liter diesel vehicles

Statement by Mike Litt, Consumer Program Advocate at U.S. PIRG Education Fund, on today’s final VW settlement involving about 475,000 2.0-liter diesel vehicles.

> Keep Reading

Pages

News Release | U.S. PIRG | Consumer Protection

PIRG Commends Release of Labor Dept.'s Proposed Rule To End Conflicted Retirement Advice

PIRG today commended the public release of the Department of Labor’s proposed rule that would strengthen the ability for Americans to save for retirement by addressing conflicts of interest that arise when brokers and financial advisers give retirement advice. Wall Street will fight the rule hard, because it requires them to put consumers first.

> Keep Reading
News Release | U.S. PIRG | Consumer Protection

USPIRG Commends Department of Labor's Rule On Conflicted Retirement Advice

Today, we joined President Obama, Senator Elizabeth Warren, CFPB Director Rich Cordray, Labor Secretary Tom Perez and others at AARP as the President announced his strong support for a proposed Labor Department rule to close loopholes and to require Wall Street and other financial advisors to put consumers first when they give retirement advice. Wall Street has already launched a misleading attack. Read more to see our statement supporting the proposal, which will put billions of dollars back into retirement accounts.

> Keep Reading
News Release | U.S. PIRG Education Fund | Consumer Protection

Survey Finds Dangerous Toys on Store Shelves

Dangerous or toxic toys can still be found on America’s store shelves, according to our 29th annual Trouble in Toyland report. The report reveals the results of laboratory testing on toys for toxic chemicals, including lead, chromium and phthalates, all of which can have serious, adverse health impacts on a child’s development. The survey also found examples of small toys that pose a choking hazard, extremely loud toys that threaten children’s hearing, and powerful toy magnets that can cause serious injury if swallowed.

> Keep Reading
News Release | U.S. PIRG | Consumer Protection

Consumer Groups Commend CPSC Step Toward Eliminating Child Strangulations

We join leading child safety advocates to commend U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commisision (CPSC) staff for recommending that the commissioners accept our joint petition to consider adoption of a mandatory rule addressing window blind cord strangulations. At least 7 deaths have occurred in 2014; since 1996, window cord strangulations have resulted in at least 285 serious injuries or deaths.

> Keep Reading
News Release | U.S. PIRG | Consumer Protection

Groups Applaud CPSC for Protecting Kids From Dangerous Magnets

U.S. PIRG and other consumer advocates, joined by pediatricians and pediatric gastroenterologists, today applauded the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s (CPSC) vote to address the hazards posed by high powered magnets.  Children who swallow two or more magnets are at risk of developing serious injuries such as small holes in the stomach and intestines, intestinal blockage, blood poisoning, and even death.

> Keep Reading

Pages

Blog Post | Consumer Protection

CFPB, FTC Take Separate Actions Against Two Illegal Online Payday "Cash-Grab"Schemes | Ed Mierzwinski

Yesterday the CFPB and FTC announced separate actions against two online payday lenders running essentially the same alleged scam. Both "lenders" collected detailed consumer information from lead generation websites or data brokers, including bank account numbers, then deposited purported payday loans of $200-300 into those accounts electronically, and then collected biweekly finance charges "indefinitely,"

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Consumer Protection

We oppose merger between giants Comcast & Time Warner Cable | Ed Mierzwinski

Along with a number of state PIRGs, we have joined the Consumer Federation of America in a petition to deny the merger of cable/Internet giants Comcast & Time Warner Cable. The petition argues that the FCC must deny the merger, which would perpetuate unrestrained cable price increases, allow terrible service to deteriorate further and stifle innovation.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Consumer Protection

Wall Street launches "pants-on-fire" attack on CFPB | Ed Mierzwinski

The Financial Services Roundtable, a powerful Wall Street lobby that spends millions of dollars annually lobbying on behalf of its big Wall Street bank members has launched a deceptive social media campaign against expansion of the CFPB's successful public consumer complaint database. And like much of what you read on the Internet, most of what they say simply isn't true.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Consumer Protection

new CFPB mortgage rules and tools available | Ed Mierzwinski

CFPB Director Rich Cordray appears on The Daily Show tonight Wednesday to talk about CFPB's new mortgage lending and servicing rules that take effect Friday, 10 January. Read on to find out more about the rules and also about the many self-help tools the CFPB has created to help homebuyers and homeowners protect themselves.

> Keep Reading
Blog Post | Consumer Protection

Retailers appeal swipe fee settlement with Visa/Mastercard | Ed Mierzwinski

Yesterday, big retailers filed an appeal of last month's announced final settlement order in an antitrust case involving price-fixing by Visa and Mastercard. PIRG backs the merchants because non-negotiable swipe fees force all consumers, including cash customers, to pay more at the store and more at the pump.

> Keep Reading

Pages

View AllRSS Feed

Support us

Your tax-deductible donation supports U.S. PIRG Education Fund’s work to educate consumers on the issues that matter, and the powerful interests that are blocking progress.

Learn More

You can also support U.S. PIRG Education Fund’s work through bequests, contributions from life insurance or retirement plans, securities contributions and vehicle donations.