Learning how to prevent identity theft can save you from months or even years of hassle. Thieves or hackers may use your stolen personal information to gain access to your bank accounts, credit cards or hack your online accounts or email. They may then use the information to defraud others pretending they are YOU.

Identity theft has become a fast growing criminal activity in the 20th Century, replacing illegal drug sales. For the perpetrators, it offers the highest profit margin with the least risk. In fact, according to one expert, it is estimated that fewer than 1-in-700-identity crimes actually result in a conviction.

In the United States alone, Identity theft has reached $53 billion dollars a year. Consumers are directly shouldering about $5 billion of that, but the rest, which is paid by businesses and retailers, is passed on indirectly to consumers who are paying more for goods and services.

How BIG is this Problem of Identity Theft?

In recent months, there has been a rash of reports about big thefts, where criminals are stealing identities in mass quantities. Banks, credit card companies and businesses that house servers storing passwords or other sensitive, private information have all reported “break-ins” that happened through the use of Trojan viruses and other online hacking methods – resulting in the loss of millions of pieces of information being stolen.

There have also been instances of the information just getting “lost”, of employees selling it and other lax security measures resulting in the same thing – thieves having access to your identity. This is why it is so important to learn how to prevent identity theft and to learn how to protect your personal information.

What do Thieves Want?

– Your Name
– Date of Birth
– Home Address
– Phone Numbers
– Social Security Number
– Driver’s License Number
– Credit Card Numbers
– CW2 Security Code (the number on the back of your credit card)
– Your Credit Report
– ATM Cards
– Telephone Calling Cards
– Mortgage Details

Where Are They Getting All Your Personal Information?

High-tech methods include online thefts from:

– Banks
– Credit-Reference Agencies
– Retailers
– Credit Card Networks
– Data-Brokerage Companies
– Payment Processing Companies
– Phone Companies
– Schools
– Your Employer
– Doctors, Clinics and Health Departments
– Government Agencies

But there are still low-tech methods that are effective as well:

– Dumpster Diving
– Mail Theft
– Retail Theft
– “Phishing”/pretexting/pretending
– Purse/Wallet Theft

What are Thieves Using Your Personal Information For?

– Making charges to your existing credit cards
– Opening new credit cards in your name
– Having phone or utilities turned on
– Withdrawing money from your existing bank accounts
– Employment purposes
– Driver’s Licenses
– Tax Fraud
– Social Service benefits
– Student loans
– Business or Personal loans
– Health care
– Mortgage loans/leases
– Auto loans
– Using your ID when caught committing a crime

How Can You Protect Yourself from Identity Theft?

– Keep a photocopy of all your credit cards, bank account numbers and investment account numbers in a safe place
– Keep your credit card receipts – don’t throw them away in a public place
– Put a “fraud alert” on all your credit reports
– If you apply for credit and the card doesn’t arrive on time, call the card issuer
– Choose difficult to guess PIN numbers or passwords. (Don’t use birth dates, your mother’s maiden name, pet’s name, etc.) – Never give personal information to anyone who sends you an email, a letter or calls you asking for it
– Shred any personal information – such as bills, credit card or bank statements, even pre-approved credit applications before throwing them away
– Don’t use the ATM machine if someone is watching you
– Pay attention to what’s going on around you – cell phones often have cameras in them. If someone is standing close by you with a cell phone while you’re entering a PIN number at the ATM or in line at the grocery store, block their view
– Review your bills each month for unusual or suspicious charges. If there’s something you don’t remember or doesn’t seem right, call the creditor right away
– Check your credit report at least once a year
– Store your cancelled checks safely, or better yet, have the bank do it. You can always get a copy if you need one.
– Don’t leave your purse in plain sight when driving
– Keep your valuable locked in the trunk or glove box when driving
– Make all personal information on your laptop or computer password protected
– Don’t carry information about your PIN numbers, passwords and account numbers in your purse or wallet; or at least don’t make them easily identifiable as to which account they belong to

Warning Signs that Your Identity Has Been Stolen:

– Although you have good credit, a loan application is denied, or you’re refused extended credit requests
– You are suddenly contacted by a debt-collection agency
– Your purse or wallet has been stolen, or your house broken into
– There is unfamiliar activity on your credit report

How to Prevent Identity Theft – What to do if it Happens to You:

– If your purse or wallet is stolen, call the police immediately, and file a report. Make sure that you’re given a report number
– Contact your bank, credit card and other credit extending companies and report the theft – Close the accounts
– Contact the credit-reporting companies in your area, and report the theft.
– Review your credit report every 90 days for the next year for suspicious activity
– If there is fraudulent activity, have it removed immediately and monitor your credit report every 90 days for the next year
– Put everything in writing, and follow up with your credit card companies, banks, and credit reporting agencies. Keep copies of all supporting documents
– File a report with the Federal Trade Commission
– Change the passwords on your existing accounts and create new ones for new accounts

By paying attention to the risks and taking proactive steps to protect yourself, you can minimize your chances of someday having an “identity crisis” and learn how to prevent identity theft. Don’t let anyone walk off with your hard earned money.