According to the FTC, Identity theft is by far the number one consumer problem in the U.S. Here’s how it happens, how to prevent it and how to recover if it happens to you.
A quarter of a million people complain to the Federal Trade Commission every year about identity theft: It’s been the top consumer complaint for for than a decade.
It’s no mystery why. Identity theft can tar your financial reputation for a long time — that’s what happened to Debra Fetterly. Even though she handled things the right way, she’s still dealing with it years later.
“I felt like a criminal from the minute it started, because I suddenly had to explain who I was,” says Fetterly. “Sometimes my name still comes up on what I call ‘the wanted list.’ Even a couple years later, sometimes I write a check, and it’s denied, and I’m not told why.”
Despite an excellent credit rating, she still gets occasional denials like these. Her MasterCard wouldn’t work at Dillard’s. Kohl’s wouldn’t approve her for a store credit card.
“The bottom line is that I was robbed, but I am treated as a criminal,” Fetterly says.
She didn’t do anything wrong — except leave her purse on the floor of her locked car for five minutes at a gas station. That’s all it took. Fetterly is one of over nine million people the FTC estimates are victims of ID theft every year.
Fetterly talked with us about what happened and offered some advice. We also spoke with U.S. Postal Inspector Bladismir Rojo to get some safety tips. Hear them both in the video below, and then read on for ways to protect yourself from identity theft.
Rojo adds, “You’re in charge of protecting your credit. There are several steps you can take to do that, just like you lock your car and protect your house by locking your windows and doors.” You just heard a few good suggestions — let’s recap and add more.
How to prevent ID theft
- Travel light. Fetterly says, “If I’m going to make a big purchase, I have my credit card with me, and when I come home, the credit card comes out of the purse.” Otherwise, she doesn’t carry credit cards or her Social Security card with her. She even stopped carrying photos of friends and family in her wallet — fearing to somehow expose them to criminals — although you don’t have to go that far.
- Check your credit. Rojo says, “Check your credit report at least once or twice a year. I check it almost every quarter.” You can do this for free at AnnualCreditReport.com, which allows you to request a report once each year from each of the three nationwide consumer credit reporting companies: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Although each company handles things differently, they’ll mostly contain the same info — so stagger them four months apart, and you can check your credit for mistakes and inquiries three times a year, free. You can also see your actual credit score at no cost in certain situations: Check out How to Get a Free FICO Score.
- Go over statements carefully. Along with your credit report, you should take a regular look at your bank statements and credit card bills to spot any unusual transactions on a monthly basis, rather than three times a year. Even better, do this more often by going online, and opt out of paper statements, something thieves can use if not shredded. Which leads to the next tip…
- Shred your mail. Rojo says, “Thieves will rummage through the garbage to try to get these things, personal identifiers.” Those include your name, address, account numbers, birthday, and social security number. All that junk mail — credit cards and loan offers, renewal notices, even billing statements — should be torn up before you throw it out. Shredders are a cheap, worthwhile investment. You can opt out of some of that junk by going to OptOutPreScreen.com or calling888-5-OPTOUT (1-888-567-8688) to have your name removed from direct marketing lists.
- Be careful with Internet transactions. Rojo says, “When dealing with online merchants, make sure they’re on secure sites, make sure it’s HTTPS, make sure it’s companies that you know.” The “https://” protocol in front of a website address in your browser — often appearing with a lock symbol next to it — means the site is protecting your identity. Good merchants and almost any banking website should have it. If the merchant doesn’t use HTTPS, see if they have a secure checkout option such as through Paypal.
- Be careful on the Internet, period. Many people put way too much personal information out in public, and criminals can can often find ways to use it to their advantage. Understand privacy settings on all your accounts, and if you need help cleaning up your online identity, check out 6 Tips for Going Underground Online. Don’t use the same password for everything, and don’t browse sensitive sites on public wifi — we explain why and offer more Internet safety advice in 5 Tips to Protect Your Identity Online.
- Don’t give info on unsolicited calls. Rojo says, “If I call my credit card company, they have a right to ask me who I am. But if they call me, they don’t have the right to ask.” Whether it’s a phone call or email, be suspicious if someone wants to “confirm” your details — shouldn’t they already have them? These people are often ID thieves posing as financial institutions, and they can have very convincing websites or voice messages; don’t be tricked. When in doubt, tell them you’ll call back. Then, ignoring whatever contact info they give you, get in touch with the company directly and ask what’s up.
What to do if it happens to you
When Debra Fetterly was robbed of her identity, she had a hard time dealing with it. The thief broke her car window on a Friday night, and she didn’t have a way to have it fixed — no checks, no credit cards, no cash. Her credit union was closed.
“Luckily, I had food in the fridge or I would’ve been going to a friend’s house for dinner,” Fetterly says.
But she took all the right steps, even though she admits, “It wasn’t easy, because I kept feeling violated. I was upset, but I had to maintain control and take care of business.” Here’s what she did and what you should do:
- Call the police. After she “forgave myself for doing something foolish,” like leaving her purse unattended, Fetterly called the police and filed a report. U.S. Postal Inspector Bladismir Rojo said this was the right thing to do, because, “first of all, it’s then a documented problem.” Everybody will want proof that you’re a victim and “not someone pretending to be so you don’t have to pay for that $5,000 TV you bought,” he says.
- Call your bank and creditors. Fetterly stopped her checks and let her credit card companies know what was up. She says, “The person who did this to me did spend several thousand dollars. I wasn’t held accountable for that because I acted quickly.” According to the FTC, reporting a stolen card before it’s used absolves you of any liability. But “if a thief uses your credit cards before you report them missing, the most you will owe for unauthorized charges is $50 per card,” which can add up and is a hassle in itself. With debit cards, it’s even worse: Failing to report within two days means “you could lose up to $500 because of an unauthorized transfer.” You could be liable for the entire balance in your checking account if you fail to report it within 60 days.
- Check your checks. Fetterly says, “Something I learned was, when a detective interviews you and needs information about your case, it can take two or three days for the police to get a subpoena for your bank records,” and time is key to catching the thief. So Fetterly went to her credit union the next day and got copies of her cashed checks, which say when and where they were cashed. Giving that info to the detective, “he was able to go to these stores within 24 hours and get the surveillance tape to see who did this to me,” she says. (The thief, however, was never caught.)
- Request a fraud alert on your accounts. Along with checking your credit regularly as mentioned above, you can ask credit agencies to put a 90-day alert on your account that tells people checking your credit to be extra thorough in verifying your identity before granting credit. This may mean a more hassle for you, but it could be worth it in extra protection. And it’s free: All you have to do is fill out a fraud alert form online.
- Request a credit freeze. An even more serious step is to freeze your credit altogether. This prevents anyone — including you — from opening a new line of credit until you remove it, a process that can take several days. It’s not for everyone, and the policy and fee for doing this varies by state. You can learn more about state credit freeze rules at the Consumers Union site. And make note: The freeze won’t protect your file from people who already have access to it – just new requesters. Some states have other exceptions too.
- Live and learn. Identity theft can be a long-lasting emotional struggle as well as a financial one. Try not to beat yourself up over it, and learn from your mistakes. Fetterly admitted she spent a lot of time crying after it happened to her. “I had to take time off from work. I could hardly sleep at night. I was constantly watching my back; I would look at people and be very suspicious,” Fetterly says. “I became someone else. That wasn’t me.” Eventually, she regained her old self — with an extra dose of caution.
- Teach others. Many people fail to take identity theft seriously and have a “it won’t happen to me” mentality. Fetterly says, “Often times when I go to pay with my charge card, if the salesperson doesn’t ask me for ID I explain why they should. Most times I hand my license and credit card to the salesperson at the same time.” Make sure people are accountable with your info and your money, as well as their own. That includes your family and those who provide service to you — ID theft prevention is a team effort.
For more information on the top consumer complaint in America, check out the FTC’s Fighting Back Against Identity Theft site.