During the holiday season, while many of us are shopping in search of that perfect gift, identity thieves are on the lookout for new victims. It is vital that you are extra vigilant and take steps to protect your vital information from these unscrupulous individuals.
The Federal Trade Commission estimates that as many as 9 million Americans have their identities stolen each year. Some victims of identity theft have lost job opportunities, been refused loans, or been arrested for crimes they didn’t commit.
While it is a difficult process to restore your reputation, the unfortunate reality is that identity thieves require very little information to destroy your credit and tarnish your good name. A piece of personal information (your Social Security number, credit card number, date of birth, address) is all it takes to run up credit card balances, write bad checks, take out loans, receive government benefits and ruin your credit rating.
In recent years, I have helped strengthen New York State’s laws to stop identity thieves. Scam artists are constantly devising new ways to skirt the law and it is important that we do all we can legislatively to protect innocent individuals.
In 2014, legislation was signed into law that protects children from identity thieves who steal information to establish fraudulent financial accounts. Child identity theft is a particularly egregious problem because it may go undetected for years, until the child applies for student loans, other forms of credit, or even a job. The new law helps stop identity thieves from victimizing children by requiring credit agencies to place a credit record freeze on the account of a minor when requested by a parent or guardian.
Several other laws adopted in recent years prohibit the sale of your telephone records, require businesses and government agencies to notify you when your information is compromised, and mandate the proper disposal or destruction of records containing private information.
Even with these laws, there is no substitute for vigilance. Protect your computer password(s) and only use secure lines to transmit financial information via the internet. Guard your mail and trash from theft. Promptly remove mail from your mailbox and deposit outgoing mail in official post office boxes. There are also several warning signs that you can be on the lookout for, including:
Receipt of bills for purchases you didn't make;
Denial of credit for no apparent reason;
Failure to receive monthly bank or credit card statements;
Listing of inaccurate information on your credit report;
Contact by creditors, debt collection agencies and law enforcement.
It can be difficult to completely protect yourself against identity theft, but there are ways to minimize the risk. For example:
Don’t give out personal information by phone, mail, or over the Internet unless you initiate the contact or know who you’re dealing with;
Shred or otherwise completely destroy charge card receipts, outdated credit cards, insurance forms, medical statements, banking information, credit offers, and other statements containing personal information;
Every year, order copies of your credit report from the three major credit reporting agencies and review them carefully to ensure that the records are accurate and don’t include any unauthorized transactions.
New York State law also gives you another weapon in the fight against identity theft. The “Security Freeze Law” prevents your credit information from being released without your consent. With a “freeze,” outside parties would be unable to view your credit files without your approval.
For additional information regarding identity theft and the tools you can use to protect your good name, visit the New York Department of State’s website at www.dos.ny.gov/consumerprotection. The website is also a great clearinghouse of information on all of the latest consumer scams and includes useful shopping tips and other guides to help protect you.