Identity theft: How to protect yourself

Your most important possession is your identity — who you are.

However, there are criminals who want to steal your identity. Once they have it they can apply for loans and credit cards, buy cars and other expensive items, all using your identity. They can also just drain your bank accounts.

They do this by stealing the information that establishes your identity in the financial world. These items include your name, address, social security and drivers license numbers, mother’s maiden name, date and place of birth, account and credit card numbers, and others. The criminals use this information to convince banks, car dealers, stores, etc., that they are you.

To protect yourself, you must make it harder for these thieves by putting barriers around your personal and financial identifying information. To do this there are both actions to take, and actions to avoid which will make it difficult for a thief to get all the information they need to steal your identity.

Actions to take

• DO put only minimal information on your checks, no Social Security, driver’s license or phone numbers

• DO shred all credit card invoices, bank statements, bills, etc., that contain account numbers. Also shred pre-approved credit card applications.

• DO pick up new checks at the bank, and mail all your payments directly from a locked post office mailbox.

• DO check all bank and credit card accounts at least weekly using the phone or online for unauthorized access.

• DO use a separate, low limit, credit card, not tied to any other account, for all online or phone purchases.

• DO hide all financial records, credit cards, blank checks, etc., since burglars look for these.

• DO check credit reports annually.

Actions to avoid

• Do NOT give any identifying information to anyone who asks you over the phone, online or in the mail. If they claim to be from someone you use (bank, insurance, credit card) verify it by contacting them using the normal phone number or in person.

• Do NOT use easy-to-guess passwords or PINs (birthday, mother’s maiden name …). Change regularly.

• Do NOT carry birth certificates, Social Security card and passport unless needed. Do NOT carry credit cards you do not use.

• Do NOT put extra information such as address or telephone, Social Security or driver’s license number on a credit card receipt.

Seniors as a group are trusting. We want to help those we deal with, and usually believe what they say. However, when it comes to our key identifying information, we have to go against our natural trust, question every request, and put up barriers to protect it. But what do you do if the bad guys get past your defenses and start to steal your money.

If your identity has been stolen, the thief may access your existing accounts, and you will see direct signs, such as:

• Charges you didn’t make.

• Money moving out of a checking or savings account.

However, the thief is often more subtle. He will use the information to establishing credit under your identity and then use the credit to purchase items or borrow money. In this case you might see:

• Bills arriving from companies you do not know.

• Collection agencies trying to collect on debts you did not incur.

• Bank or credit card statements that suddenly stop being delivered.

• You are denied credit for no apparent reason.

If you are a victim of identity theft, you must act quickly and aggressively.

• Immediately report the crime to local police. Be as complete as possible, list all accounts. (Get the police report number and a copy of the report. This is needed to deal with the credit reporting agencies.)

• Close all credit cards (have accounts marked as “closed at consumer’s request”) and change passwords on all financial accounts.

• Notify the fraud units of the three credit reporting agencies:

• Equifax (1-800-525-6285)

• Experian (1-888-397-3742)

• TransUnion (1-800-680-7289)

Have these put a fraud alert (90 days) on your record. Renew it as needed. Be aware, however, there is no legal requirement for creditors to honor alerts.

• Mail copies of the police report to all three agencies cited above with a cover letter demanding a copy of your complete credit file. Notify all creditors with a bogus account listed in the file, demand they close the account, and demand copies of all fraudulent applications. You will need a police report for this.

• Report the crime to the Federal Trade Commission (1-877-ID THEFT), This also provides information on resolving problems and private/government agencies for further action.

• Notify utility companies to look for someone ordering services in your name. If it happens, cancel the accounts. Public Utility Commission may help.

• Keep records of all correspondence and phone calls with everyone. Include contact name, date, and any actions to be taken. Follow up all phone contacts with a letter and keep a copy.

Be aware that trying to fix identity theft problems is a complicated, long, often frustrating process, but it must be done. You will often face uncooperative financial, credit, and even law enforcement agencies. However, there are organizations that can help. These are:

• Call for Action ( Locally, you can contact this organization at WTMJ-TV (414-967-5495)

• ITRC (

Both of these organizations have check lists and suggestions that can help you go through the process of reporting an identity theft.

Concerns about identity theft should first be meet by protecting your financial information as noted above. There are firms that advertise that they will protect you against identity theft. They claim that they will perform the checking and reviewing or your finances outlined above for a fee. These firms can provide a valuable service if you are unable or unwilling to take these actions yourself.

However before you sign up for any of these services check it out. Go onto the Internet, go to the Better Business Bureau, and ask friends and advisers what they think. Also obtain all of the details in the agreement in writing, be sure you understand it and have a third party you trust look it over. Just because they advertise doesn’t mean they are legitimate.

For more information on frauds go to

The Racine County Triad Program was started by the Consumer Fraud Unit of the Racine County Sheriff’s Office in response to complaints received involving elderly victims of fraud. This consortium of Racine County law enforcement agencies, senior serving agencies and citizens is a 501C(3) nonprofit organization.

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