One of the fastest growing crimes in today’s world of increased online existence is identity theft. Identity theft has resided at the top of the list of consumer complaints filed with the Federal Trade Commission for the past 15 years.
There are not many feelings worse than having your identity stolen. It is something that can quickly destroy you. Defined as the fraudulent acquisition and use of a person’s private identifying information, usually for financial gain, identity theft can devastate your financial life. It is important that you understand what it is and what you can do to prevent it in order to avoid a whirlwind of chaos. Using your personal information, such as your Social Security number, driver’s license number or financial information, identity thieves can do serious damage in several ways, including charging your credit card to the limit, taking over your bank account and draining your balance, and applying for credit and loan accounts in your name, leaving you with a gigantic mess of bills and a damaged credit history to deal with. They can also use your identity to apply for health insurance, jobs and tax refunds or even commit other crimes that you may be held responsible for.
There are several methods by which these scammers can attain your personal information. Among their most common tools of the trade are phony websites, computer viruses, stolen wallets, stolen mail, discarded paperwork and skimmers which are used at ATM’s to steal your PIN number and financial account information. There are also more sophisticated techniques where thieves create fake job advertisements and request personal information. While it is almost impossible to fully stop or prevent identity theft, there are several steps you can take which will reduce your risk. One preventative measure is to monitor all of your financial accounts and your credit score on a regular basis. Any deviations from the norm should be reported immediately to the financial institution involved. It is imperative that you act swiftly in these incidents in order to protect your credit and finances.
It is advised that you never share your SSN unless it is required on a government form, which includes scammers calling or emailing you on behalf of the IRS, who will only request information through a sealed, official letter by mail. Other than official matters involving the IRS, credit applications or verified employment, there are not many instances when you need to disclose that information. You should never respond to any unsolicited requests for personal information by phone, mail, or online. Storing your personal information in a safe place at home and at work is also highly suggestible. Another thing you can do to prevent identity theft is to collect your mail promptly and ask the post office to put your mail on hold when you are away from home. You should also shred receipts, credit offers, account statements, and expired cards, to keep “dumpster divers” from getting your personal information. Additionally, you should be sure to install firewalls and virus-detection software on your home computer as well as create complex passwords for any online transactions and change your passwords if a company that you do business with has a breach of its databases. If you ever become the unfortunate victim of identity theft, it is crucial that you report it immediately. The Federal Trade Commission and your local police department are critical in filing the complaint. After filing a complaint with the FTC you will receive an ID theft affidavit, which must be printed and taken with you to file the crime with the local police, where you need to obtain a police report. In order to resolve any resulting problems you have with creditors, banks, and any other companies where fraudulent accounts were set up in your name, you will need to possess an identity theft report. In addition to the more commonly known instances of identity theft, there is a spreading storm circulating in the fraud arena across the country being perpetrated by identity thieves who are stealing people’s social security numbers to file electronic tax returns in their names. If a taxpayer receives a notice from the IRS indicating identity theft, they should follow the instructions in that notice. A taxpayer who believes they are at risk of identity theft due to lost or stolen personal information should contact the IRS immediately so the agency can take action to secure their tax account.
In their continuing campaign against identity theft and refund fraud, the IRS has implemented an in-depth strategy which encompasses fraud prevention, early detection and victim assistance, serving the purpose of assisting the victims of these crimes as well as investigating those responsible for this fraudulent activity. These activities have also prompted the IRS to designate 3,000 people to work on identity theft related cases; twice the number they had in 2011. In addition, they now have 35,000 employees who are trained to work with taxpayers to help with identity theft situations. The IRS has announced the availability of additional information for taxpayers caught by identity theft as part of a larger, comprehensive identity theft strategy focused on fraud protection and victim assistance. There is a special section on IRS.gov that is dedicated to identity theft matters, which includes tips for taxpayers and a special guide to assistance ranging from contacting the IRS Identity Protection Specialized Unit to tips to protect against “phishing” schemes. The IRS has also taken numerous additional steps to prevent identity theft and detect refund fraud before it occurs. Although the IRS and FTC are constantly reevaluating their processes and policies to guarantee that they are leaving no stone unturned in the war against identity theft, there is only so much they can do to ensure the safety of an individual’s identity. As with all things, it is important to remember that others can only do so much to protect us. People are urged to do their part in securing their social security number and other personal information from the grasping claws of identity thieves.