Identity fraud occurs when someone uses your name and personal identification to get a loan, to gain credit or to purchase goods and services. It also allows the perpetrator to gain access to your bank accounts. Access to your social security number and name gives a thief the ability to apply for a driver’s license in your name, apply for a credit card in your name and obtain your credit history reports. The increased use of the Internet and the centralized databases that are the cornerstone of today’s commercial market also make it much easier for someone to access and use your identity.

Victims often go unaware of the crime. Only after you apply for loans and extensions of credit are you made aware of the identity fraud. Your credit report can be seriously damaged by the misuse of the credit cards or bank account by the perpetrator. This results in you being given a negative credit history. Federal and state laws can limit the extent of your personal financial responsibility once your identity is stolen. However, it can take years to contact every agency and institution that was tapped by the thief and to notify them that the loan or credit card that they issued was fraudulent.

 Identity theft can happen in a number of ways. Mail theft occurs either when a credit card payment envelope is left in a mailbox for the mail carrier to pick up or a thief may steal a preapproved credit card. Another type of identity theft is called “dumpster diving.” Dumpster diving happens if a business throws away documents with personal information about their clients without shredding it first. It can also occur when the consumer discards information about himself without properly destroying it. Identity fraud also arises when an employee gains access to the personal information of fellow employees or customers and uses that information to obtain credit.

Identity fraud also provides a motive for purse and wallet snatching. By taking your identification and personal information, the thief gains the resources to commit identity fraud. Computerized information services and the Internet also pose a threat as possible information sources.

The threat of identity theft does not mean that you should not avail yourself of the convenience and ease provided by computer programs and the Internet. However, there are several steps that you can take to protect yourself:

  • Be selective of the personal information (Social Security card, birth certificate, passport, and credit cards) that you carry daily.

  • Keep all credit-card, debit-card and ATM receipts.

  • Put bill payments in a secure mailbox that cannot be tampered with.

  • Properly dispose of unused preapproved credit card offers.

  • Be aware of credit card activity on statements.

  • Order credit report from Experian, Equifax and Trans Union — the three major credit reporting companies once a year.

  • Do not relay personal or credit information over the telephone without having a trusted business relationship with the contacted party, business or organization.

  • Do not overuse your Social Security number.

  • Be aware of missing renewal credit cards and credit card statements.

  • Use a secure browser while shopping on the Internet.

  • Avoid using Social Security, birth date or any other obtainable information when creating passwords and pins.

  • Never write down passwords and pins.

  • Be discrete when typing or punching in passwords on computers and ATMs.

  • Have a mailbox with a lock on it.

  • Pick up new checks from the bank rather than having them delivered.

    Ask businesses to shred or lock up applications or documents with personal information.

Responding quickly to identity theft is key in avoiding future bad credit reports. The theft will need to be reported to your local police department and the police department in the cities in which you have information that a transaction has taken place using your identity. In reacting to the theft, document each telephone conversation with a follow-up letter delivered via certified mail with a return receipt. This ensures the ability to verify the conversations in the future if the need arises. It is also important to report the theft to the fraud units of the three major credit-reporting companies and to the bank.

Identity theft is a real threat, however, proper safety measures and awareness can reduce the risk and exposure should your identity be stolen.