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Protect yourself from identity theft

Updated December 23, 2009

The Cerritos Sheriff’s Station/Community Safety Center frequently reminds residents of simple and inexpensive ways to avoid becoming a victim of crime. Identity theft is one type of crime that can take years to recover from. Restoring your credit status often requires numerous phone calls and correspondence.

Identity theft has become a major concern to law enforcement throughout the United States. It is the fastest growing crime and affects more than 500,000 new victims each year. According to the U.S. Postal Service, there were almost ten million incidents of identity theft in the United States in 2004 at a cost of $5 billion to consumers. Victims report spending 30 hours, on average, cleaning up after an identity crime at an average cost of $500.

Identity theft, or identity fraud, is the taking of a victim’s identity to obtain credit cards from banks and retailers, steal money from a victim’s existing account(s), apply for loans, establish accounts with utility companies, rent an apartment, file bankruptcy, or obtain a job. Thousands of dollars can be stolen by these methods without the victim becoming aware of the problem for months or even years.

The imposter obtains the victim’s social security card number, date of birth, and other identification data such as his or her address and phone number. Armed with this information, the thief can obtain a fictitious driver’s license, apply for instant credit, or pose as the victim through mail transactions. Often the criminal will claim that he or she had just moved, and will provide a different address. All of this information is in the victim’s name. Once the first account is opened, credit is used to the limit, and funds are drained from all possible sources.

The identity thief can get a victim’s information from a variety of sources. Some of these include the victim’s doctor, lawyer, school, health insurance carrier, and many other places including a home mailbox. These thieves are known to even go through trash to locate any document that may have been thrown away such as a utility bill, credit card slip, or especially a credit card offer that only requires a phone call or reply to open an account. Unsolicited credit card offers are a frequent source of information for criminals looking to establish an account with your name on it.

The National Crime Prevention Council advises that you consider the following points to ensure that this does not happen to you:

  • Never give out personal information over the phone, through the mail, or over the Internet unless you are the one that initiated the contact and are aware of the party you are dealing with. Be cautious of those posing as bank representatives, credit card company personnel, and even governmental officials that are seeking this personal information from you. It never hurts to get their phone number to verify validity and call them back.

  • Obtain and use a paper shredder. This appliance is helpful in destroying documents that contain account information, social security numbers or any other data that can be used by someone to obtain goods, services or money in your name. Document shredders can shred multiple documents at a time, and are relatively inexpensive.

  • Avoid using your mother’s maiden name, your date of birth, social security number, or a similar series of numbers as any form of a password. These identifying factors can easily be obtained from records and used against you.

  • Never carry your social security card, passport, birth certificate, or other identifying papers unless it is absolutely necessary. Also, limit the amount of credit cards that you possess at any given time.

  • Never put your social security card number on checks or credit card receipts. If the business requests your social security card number, give them an alternate number and explain the reason. If a government agency requests your social security card number, there must be a privacy notice accompanying the request.

  • Avoid putting telephone numbers on checks.

  • Be careful when you use ATM and phone cards. Someone may be looking over your shoulder to get your PIN, and ultimately be able to gain access to your account.

  • Make a list of all of your credit card account numbers and bank account numbers with the customer service number available for each one, and store this list in a safe place. 

  • When you order a new credit card, or are due to receive a replacement for an expired card, watch the calendar to make sure that you get the card(s) within a reasonable amount of time. If the card does not arrive when expected, call the credit card grantor immediately to find out if the card had been sent, and make sure that the address was not changed to another location.

  • Do not put your credit card number on the Internet unless it has been encrypted on a secure site.

  • Pay attention to your billing cycles. Follow up with the creditor if a bill does not arrive on time. A missing credit card bill could indicate that a thief that has changed the address on the account and is using your identity.

  • Consider canceling all credit cards that you have not used in the past six months. Open credit is a prime target.

  • Order your credit report at least twice a year. The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) requires each of the nationwide consumer reporting companies—Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion—to provide you with a free copy of your credit report, at your request, once every 12 months, by visiting or calling (877) 322-8228. Free reports are NOT available when contacting the three agencies individually. A consumer reporting company may charge you up to $10.50 for an additional copy of your report within a 12-month period. To purchase a report from the individual organizations, the following contact information is offered:
  • Correct all mistakes on your credit report in writing. Send letters with a request to be notified of receipt of the corrections. Identify the problem item by item and send with a copy of the credit report back to the credit-reporting agency. You should hear from the agency within 30 days.
  • To have your name taken off of direct mail lists, visit the Direct Marketing Association's "DMA Choice" website or call (212) 768-7277, ext. 1500

If you become a victim of identity theft, call the Cerritos Sheriff's Station at (562) 860-0044.  

Additional information can be obtained by visiting the Federal Trade Commission's Identity Theft website.

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