Identity Thieves Can Ruin Your Good Name

Identity theft: The act of stealing your good name to commit fraud. You can minimize your risk by managing your personal information wisely, cautiously and with heightened sensitivity.

Ways to Steal Your Identity

  • Stolen or lost wallet containing your identification and credit and bank cards.
  • Fraudulently accessing your credit report by posing as an employer, loan officer, or landlord.
  • "Shoulder surfing" at automated teller machines (ATMs) and phone booths to capture your personal identification numbers (PINs).
  • Stealing mail from mailboxes to get newly issued credit cards, bank and credit card statements, pre-approved credit offers, and tax information. They complete a "change of address form" to divert your mail to another location.
  • Going through your trash or trash bins of businesses for personal date, credit card, and loan applications. This practice is known as "dumpster diving."
  • Use personal information you share on the Internet.
  • Buy your personal information from "inside" sources such as a store employee.
  • Fraudulently obtain your credit report by posing as a landlord, employer, or someone else who may have a legitimate need and legal right to the information.

How Identity Thieves use Your Personal Information

  • Call your credit card issuer pretending to be you and ask to change the mailing address on your credit card account. The imposter then runs up charges on your account. Because your bills are being sent to the new address, it may take some time before you realize there's a problem.
  • Open a new credit card account using your name, date of birth and Social Security Number. When they use the credit card and don't pay the bills, the delinquent account is reported on your credit report.
  • Establish phone or wireless service in your name.
  • Open a bank account in your name and write bad checks on that account. Counterfeit checks or debit cards and drain your bank account.
  • File for bankruptcy under your name to avoid paying debts they've incurred under your name, or to avoid eviction.

Here’s How to Guard Against it

  • Before revealing personal identifying information, find out how it will be used and if it will be shared with others. Ask if you have a choice about the use of your information: can you choose to have it kept confidential?
  • Pay attention to your billing cycles. Follow up with creditors if bills do not arrive on time. A missing credit card bill could mean an identity thief has taken over your credit card account and changed your billing address to cover his/her tracks.
  • Guard your mail from theft. Deposit outgoing mail in post office collection boxes or at your local post office. Put a lock on your mail box. Promptly remove mail from your mailbox after it has been delivered. Mail theft is a popular way to steal your identity.
  • Block your name from marketing lists and remove it from pre-approved offers of credit by calling 1-888-567-8088.
  • Guard your Social Security number. Do not carry it with you. Give your Social Security number only when absolutely necessary. Ask to use other types of identifiers when possible. Do not have your Social Security number printed on your checks.
  • Minimize the identification information and the number of cards you carry to what you actually need. If your I.D. or credit cards are lost or stolen, notify the creditors by phone immediately, and call the credit bureaus to ask that a "fraud alert" be placed in your file. Get credit cards with your picture on them. Cancel cards you no longer use.
  • Do not give out personal information on the phone, through the mail, or over the Internet unless you have initiated the contact or know who you are dealing with.
  • Order a copy of your credit report from the three credit reporting agencies every year ( Experian ,(888) 397-3742; Equifax, (800) 685-1111; and Trans Union, (800) 916-8800). Make sure it’s accurate and includes only those activities you’ve authorized.
  • Keep items with personal information in a locked safe place; tear them up when you don’t need them anymore. Make sure charge receipts, copies of credit applications, insurance forms, bank checks and statements, expired charge cards, and credit offers you get in the mail are disposed of appropriately (torn up or shredded).
  • Carefully review your credit card statements and phone bills each month. Immediately report any discrepancies to the companies.
  • Be aware of others when using an ATM or phone card. Shield your hand when entering your PIN.
  • If your state uses your Social Security Number as your driver's license number, lobby your elected representative to change the policy or ask the department of motor vehicles if another number can be used instead.
  • Never give out your credit card or bank account information over the phone unless you're familiar with the business and have initiated the call.
  • Add passwords to bank, credit-card, and utility accounts so that only you or your closest relative have access to this information. When creating passwords and PINs, avoid using your birth date, the last four digits of your Social Security Number or your phone number, or a series of consecutive numbers.
  • Use caution when buying merchandise on the Internet or over the phone, especially if you did not initiate the call. Beware of scam artists who say you've won a valuable prize or qualify for a credit card, but ask you to verify your Social Security number first. Never give your Social Security number or personal information over the phone. Instruct your children about this.
  • Add a firewall (site protection_ to your PC if you have an Internet connection. Hackers can take information from your computer if you aren't protected.

Individuals whose identities are stolen suffer in many ways — the least of which is their ruined credit ratings. Some have lost jobs and promotions; some run up thousands of dollars in phone expenses trying to erase fraudulent charges and stop new ones; some end up with criminal records created by their impostors; others have even been jailed.

The Secret Service, which tracks major ID theft cases, says the dollar value of cases it follows has nearly doubled in the last year. In fiscal 1997, identity fraud cost $745 million vs. $450 million in 1996.

If Your Wallet is Lost or Stolen

  • File a report with the police immediately. Get a copy in case your bank, credit card company or insurance company need proof of the crime.
  • Cancel each credit and charge card. Get new cards with new account numbers.
  • Report missing cards to the major credit reporting agencies. Ask them to flag your accounts and add a "victim's statement" to your file. Major credit reporting agencies:
  • Report the loss to your bank. Cancel checking and savings accounts and open new ones. Stop payments on outstanding checks. Get a new ATM card, account number and password. Do not use the last four digits of your Social Security number, your street address, or your birth date as a password.
  • Call your utilities, including your phone company. Tell them that someone may try to get new service using your identification.
  • Report your missing driver's license to the department of motor vehicles. Get a new number that's not your Social Security Number.
  • Change the locks on your home and car if your keys were taken. Don't give an identity thief access to even more personal property and information.
  • Notify the Federal Trade Commission. Under the 1998 Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act, the FTC will maintain a database of identity theft and refer complaints to the appropriate authorities.
  • Do not pay any bill or a portion of a bill that results from identity theft. Also, do not cover any checks that were written or cashed as fraudulently. As long as you have notified the authorities, your credit rating should not be permanently affected.

If You're a Victim

Which steps you should take to protect yourself depends on your circumstances and how your identity has been misused. There are basic actions that are appropriate in almost every case:

Step One:

File a report with your local police or the police in the community where the identity theft took place and other federal agencies such as the Secret Service, Post Office, or FBI. Get a copy of the police report in case the bank, credit card company or others need proof of the crime. Even if the police can't catch the identity theft in your case, having a copy of the police report can help you when dealing with creditors.

Step Two:

Contact the fraud department of each of the three major credit bureaus:

Equifax Credit Information Services, Inc.
P.O. Box 740241
Atlanta, GA 30374-0241
(800) 525-6285
$8 Fee
Experian (Formerly TRW )
P.O. Box 949
Allen, TX 75013-0949
(888) 397-3742
Trans Union Corporation
P. O. Box 6790
Fullerton, CA 92634
(800) 680-7289
$8 Fee

Tell them that you're an identity theft victim. Request that a "fraud alert" be placed in your file, as well as a victim's statement asking that creditors call you before opening any new accounts or changing your existing accounts. This can help prevent an identity theft from opening additional accounts in your name.

At the same time, ask the credit bureaus for copies of your credit reports. Credit bureaus must give you a free copy of your report if your report is inaccurate because of fraud. Review your reports carefully to make sure no additional fraudulent accounts have been opened in your name or unauthorized changes made to your existing accounts. Also, check the section of your report that lists "inquiries." Where inquiries appear from the company(ies) that opened the fraudulent account(s), request that these inquiries be removed from your report. In a few months, order new copies of your reports to verify your corrections and changes and to make sure no new fraudulent activity has occurred.

Step Three:

Call creditors, banks, employers, or other businesses and let them know fraud has occurred. Contact the creditors for any accounts that have been tampered with or opened fraudulently. Creditors can include credit card companies, phone companies and other utilities, banks, and other lenders. Ask to speak with someone in the security or fraud department of each creditor and follow up with a letter. It is particularly important to notify credit card companies in writing because that's the consumer protection procedure the law (Fair Credit Billing Act) spells out for revolving errors on credit card billing statements.

Immediately close accounts that have been tampered with and open new ones with new Personal Identification Numbers (PINs) and passwords. Avoid using easily available information like your mother's maiden name, your birth date, the last four digits of your Social Security Number, your phone number, or a series of consecutive numbers.

Step Four:

For Stolen mail:

If an identity theft has stolen your mail to get new credit cards, bank and credit card statements, prescreened credit offers or tax information, or if an identity theft has falsified change-of-address forms, that's a crime. Report it to your local postal inspector. Contact your local post office for the phone number for the nearest postal inspection service office or check the Postal Service web site.

Change of address on credit card accounts:

If you discover that an identity theft has changed the billing address on an existing credit card account, close the account. When you open a new account, ask that a password be used before any inquiries or changes can be made on the account. Avoid using the easily available information given above.

Bank accounts:

If you have reason to believe that an identity theft has tampered with your bank accounts, checks or ATM card, close the accounts immediately. When you open new accounts, insist on password-only access to minimize the chance that an identity theft can violate the accounts.

In addition, if your checks have been stolen or misused, stop payment. Also contact the major check verification companies to request that they notify retailers using their databases not to accept these checks or ask your bank to notify the check verification service with which it does business. Three of the check verification companies that accept reports of check fraud directly from consumers are:

Telecheck: 1-800-710-9898
International Check Services: 1-800-631-9656
Equifax: 1-800-437-5120

If your ATM card has been lost, stolen, or otherwise compromised, cancel the card as soon as you can and get another with a new PIN.


If you believe that an identity thief has tampered with your securities investments or a brokerage account, immediately report it for your broker or accountant manager and to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Phone service:

If an identity thief has established new phone service in your name; is making unauthorized calls that seem to come from and are billed to your cellular phone; or is using your calling card and PIN, contact your service provider immediately to cancel the account and/or calling card. Open new accounts and choose new PINs.

If you have trouble getting fraudulent phone charges removed from your account, contact your state Public Utility Commission for local service providers or the Federal Communications Commission for long-distance service providers and cellular providers at or call 1-888-225-5322.


If you believe someone is using your Social Security Number to apply for a job or to work, that's a crime. Report it to the SSA's Fraud Hotline at 1-800-269-0271. Also call SSA at 1-800-772-1213 to verify the accuracy of the earnings reported on your SSN and to request a copy of your Social Security Statement.

Driver's license:

If you suspect that your name or SSN is being used by an identity thief to get a driver's license or a non-driver's ID card, contact your Department of Motor Vehicles. If your state uses your SSN as your driver's license number, ask to substitute another number.


If you believe someone has filed for bankruptcy using your name, write to the U. S. Trustee in the Region where the bankruptcy was filed. A listing of the U. S. Trustee Program's Regions can be found at or look in the Blue Pages of your phone book under U. S. Government - Bankruptcy Administration.

Your letter should describe the situation and provide proof of your identity. The U. S. Trustee, if appropriate, will make a referral to criminal law enforcement authorities if you provide appropriate documentation to substantiate your claim. You also may want to file a complaint with the U. S. Attorney and/or the FBI in the city where the bankruptcy was filed.

Criminal records/arrests:

In rare instances, an identity thief may create a criminal record under your name. For example, your imposter may give your name when being arrested. If this happens to you, you may need to hire an attorney to help resolve the problem. The procedures for clearing your name vary by jurisdiction.

Your Rights Under Federal Credit Laws

You have certain rights under federal credit laws that can help you undo some of the damage done by identity thieves. These rights include:

Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act:

You have the right to receive your credit report. You are entitled to receive the report free of charge if your report is inaccurate because of fraud.

You have the right to dispute errors in your credit report. Once you notify them, the credit bureau and the company that furnished the inaccurate information to the credit bureau must investigate the disputed information. The credit bureau is required to remove incorrect information from your report.

Under the Truth-In-Lending Act and the Fair Credit Billing Act:

If you report to the credit card issuer that your credit card is lost or stolen, you cannot be held responsible for more than $50 of unauthorized charges.

You have the right to dispute errors on your credit card bill. If you send a written notice to the credit card issuer within 60 days, it must investigate and either correct the error or explain why the bill is believed to be correct within two billing cycles or 90 days, whichever is less.

Under the Electronic Fund Transfer Act:

You have the right to dispute errors on your electronic fund transfer account statements. If you send a written notice to the issuing financial institution within 60 days, it must investigate and either correct the error or explain why the account statement is believed to be correct within thirteen business days. In some cases, if the institution needs more time, it may take up to 45 days to complete the investigation.

Under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act:

If a debt collector contacts you about a debt that you believe you do not owe, you have the right to file a dispute with the debt collector. If you do so in writing within thirty days of the collector's initial contact with you, the collector is required to stop all collection efforts until the debt is verified and the verification is sent to you.

Finally, a number of states have passed, or are considering, their own identity theft laws. You may want to check with your state Attorney General's office or your local police to find out if you have any additional protections or remedies under the laws of your state.

Law Intended to Stem Increase in Identity Fraud

A law signed October 30, 1998 promises to crack down on the growing crime of identity fraud. The Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act of 1998 recognized people as victims of a crime and, for the first time, gives them the right to file police reports and recoup their damages.

The new act makes it a federal crime when someone to "knowingly" transfer or use, without lawful authority, a means of identification of another person with the intent to commit, or to aid or abet, any unlawful activity that constitutes a violation of federal law, or that constitutes a felony under any applicable state or local law."

The new law also stiffens prison sentences for impostors, making the crime of posing as another person for economic gain — as well as to hid criminal activity — a felony punishable with prison sentences ranging from 3 to 25 years. It appoints a federal agency — the Federal Trade Commission - to serve as an advocate for victims; helping them find the right law enforcement agency to prosecute their case and aiding their quest to fix the devastation that ID theft can wreak.

The new law should make it easier to get police to take identity theft seriously and to get erroneous items eliminated from credit and police reports.

View the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act.

Where There's Help. . .

If you've been a victim of identity theft, file a complaint with the FTC by contacting the FTC's Identity Theft Hotline by telephone: toll-free 1-877-438-4338; TDD 202-326-2502; by mail:

Identity Theft Clearinghouse
Federal Trade Commission
600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20580
1-877-438-4338, or online:

National Fraud Information Center (you can also call 1-800-876-7060)

For More Information

Identity Theft Resource Center

Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, 1717 Kettner Avenue, Suite 105, San Diego, CA 92101; (619) 298-3396; Fax (619) 298-5681.

Publications can be ordered through the Identity Theft Clearinghouse, (877) ID-THEFT, (438-4338).

Note: The links on this page that go to web sites outside of this agency's control are provided as a convenience only. The Department takes no responsibility for their content.

See other Web Sites on Credit Cards.

Identity Theft Brochure