Identity theft is the fastest growing crime in America. According to the Federal Trade Commission, the number of identity theft incidents reached 9.9 million in 2003. These crimes are estimated to have taken the average victim $500 and 30 hours to resolve.
From stolen credit cards to total identity kidnapping, these ugly and prevalent crimes are hard to prevent and often difficult to correct. Although it is hard to truly avoid becoming a victim of identity theft, there are a few ways you can guard against this damaging crime.
1. Types of identity theft
Identity theft crimes range from purse snatchings to kingpin-style fraud rings. The definition of identity theft is a crime in which an imposter obtains key pieces of personal information, such as a Social Security number, in order to impersonate someone else. Identity theft can occur when someone takes your mail, steals your wallet or swipes your records from an institution. Most cases can be resolved fairly easily if they are caught early. Creditors and banks usually hold you responsible for only the first $50 of fraudulent charges. The most serious cases of fraud can take several years and many resources to resolve.
2. Preventative measures
In this world of smiling strangers, it can be tough to keep your identity safe. The best security policy is to be aware of fraud and cautious about where you share personal information. Check your account statements carefully each month and keep an eye out for suspicious activity on your credit report. A paper shredder can also be a powerful tool for making sure personal information and pre-approved credit offers don't end up in the wrong hands.
3. If your identity is stolen
If you suspect that your identity has been stolen, the first step is to get all the facts about the damage. Become your own detective-search your credit report and bank accounts for clues. Ask your creditors to immediately cancel any fraudulent charges and consider putting a security alert on your credit report. If the theft is serious, file a police report. If fraudulent records start to show up on your credit report, send letters of dispute to the reporting agencies with copies of documentation supporting your claim. Signing up with a credit monitoring service will inform you of changes to your credit. It may take a while to fully recover the security of your accounts, but it's crucial that you don't let the fraud escalate.
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Jeffrey Broobin is a free-lance writer on family and finance issues; his main goal is to help people during their complicated period of life.