How to Protect Yourself Against Identity Theft

By Rick Shaffer

Identity theft – the stealing of your name, birth date, social security number or personal identification number (PIN) by a thief who then fraudulently applies for and acquires, in your name, credit cards, health insurance, cell phone services and the like – is the fastest growing crime in America.

In the past five years, more than 27 million Americans had their identities stolen. Almost 10 million Americans were victimized in 2003 alone. You needn’t join their ranks. Take the following precautions to protect yourself from potential identity thieves:

Don’t give your social security number to anyone who has no legitimate need for it.

Don’t have your social security number used as your driver’s license number. (If it is, you can request a change through the state motor vehicle department.)

Don’t have your social security number printed on your checks, and don’t allow merchants to write your social security number on the check (your non-social-security driver’s license number can be used instead).

Memorize your social security number, account passwords, PINs and other important numbers, rather than keeping the numbers in your wallet. Avoid talking about such numbers in public.

Be conscious of “shoulder surfers” (people looking over your shoulder) when you’re using or inputting personal information (such as PINs at ATMs or automatic credit card “swipe” machines). A recent variation on this kind of snooping is people who use the camera function on their cell phones to capture this information.

Don’t use any portion of your social security number as a part of any PIN or password numbers you create.

If a company asks for your social security number, ask if another identifying number or information can be used instead.

Don’t keep any documents that include your social security number or date of birth (for example, health insurance cards, social security card, passport or birth certificate) in your wallet or purse except at times when you’ll definitely need them.

Shred bills, letters or any other documents that include your name, social security number or date of birth before throwing them away. Identity thieves will “dumpster dive” – go through trash – to find any useful information.

Remove your name from marketing lists maintained by the three major credit reporting agencies (see Resources).

Contact the Direct Marketing Association and sign up with their mail, telephone and e-mail preference services, which will delete your name from many lists used by marketers.

Never give your social security number, name or date of birth over the phone or via the Internet, unless it’s to a business or company you know and trust and with which you have initiated the contact.

Be very careful before applying for preapproved credit offers with “convenience checks” sent through the mail (identity thieves sometimes use fraudulent mailings to acquire information needed to perform identity theft).

Limit the number of credit cards you have, and never carry more than two in your wallet or purse.

Always take credit-card receipts with you. Never throw them away in a public trash can or container.

2pt">Cancel any credit accounts you don’t use. Technologically sophisticated thieves run computer programs that systematically run account numbers until they hit upon a “live” one.

2pt">Check your telephone bills and credit-card statements carefully for unauthorized use.

2pt">When you order new checks, make sure you receive them. Unless it’s very inconvenient, it’s better to pick up new checks at your bank rather than having them sent to your home.

2pt">Keep canceled checks in a safe and secure place.

2pt">If you’re expecting a new (or a reissued) credit card, watch your mailbox. If you don’t receive the card in a timely fashion, contact the company issuing the card.

2pt">Never leave outgoing mail out in the open in public spaces. Instead, deposit all outgoing mail in a locked mail collection box.

2pt">Rather than signing your name in the box provided on your credit card, write “ask for ID.” This alerts the cashier to ask you for further identification.

2pt">In addition, get a copy of your credit report once each year from each of the three major credit reporting agencies to be sure that no suspicious credit activity is being conducted under your name. (These reports are typically available for free once each year. See Resources below.)


2pt">If You Are Victimized

2pt">What happens if, despite your best precautionary efforts, you discover that you’re a victim of credit identity fraud?

2pt">Generally, so long as you report the fraud as soon as you discover it, you won’t be liable for the bulk of any money or goods acquired fraudulently by someone using your credit identity (your liability for such credit identity theft losses is usually very limited – at most, $50).

However, while you probably won’t be liable for fraudulent charges or purchases, you will be responsible for getting rid of the fraudulent credit accounts and repairing your credit rating, which can be damaged for months or even years by credit identity theft.

Repairing credit damage isn’t easy, especially since, according to many consumer advocates, the credit reporting agencies and the credit industry are not as cooperative as they should be in helping victims of credit identity theft. (One consumer advocate estimates that victims of credit identity theft can spend, on average, as much as 175 hours and $800 to repair their credit.)

To keep damage to a minimum and begin to repair the damage done by a credit thief, take the following steps immediately if you suspect you’ve been the victim of credit theft and fraud:

Contact the fraud departments of the three major credit reporting agencies (see Resources), and have a fraud alert placed on your account (a fraud alert requires that new credit not be granted in your name without your specific approval).

Contact each of the companies (both by phone and in writing) with which credit has been acquired or purchases have been made fraudulently. Inform them of the situation and have them close the accounts. In most cases, you’ll be asked to submit documentation of the identity theft. To avoid having to fill out numerous forms for different agencies and companies, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has published a generic form that you can download from its Web site and submit to any company, service or business that has granted credit to someone fraudulently posing as you (see Resources).

Keep a hard copy of all correspondence mailed or faxed related to the repairing of your credit. Get and keep the names of everyone you speak with at credit reporting agencies and companies from which credit was fraudulently acquired regarding the repairing of your credit.

ss=MsoBodyText style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 12pt">File a report of any credit theft with your local police department, and make a copy of the report for your files. (You’ll need it for going through the process of erasing the accounts that were opened in your name fraudulently.)

ss=MsoBodyText style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 12pt">Contact the Social Security Administration to report fraudulent use of your social security number. (You can request a change of your social security number, but the SSA usually only grants such requests in extreme cases.)

ss=MsoBodyText style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 12pt">In extreme cases, consider hiring an attorney to help you deal with creditors or credit reporting agencies that are not helpful in your efforts to cancel and remove fraudulent credit. (Contact your local Bar Association for attorneys who specialize in consumer law.)

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ss=MsoBodyText style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 12pt">RESOURCES

ss=MsoBodyText style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 12pt">Federal Trade Commission – To download a FTC ID Theft Affidavit form, visit

ss=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 12pt">Credit Reporting Agencies

ss=MsoBodyText style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 12pt">Experian – To order credit report or report credit fraud, call 888-397-3742.

ss=MsoBodyText style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 12pt">Trans Union – To order credit report, call 800-888-4213. To report credit fraud, call 800-680-7289.

ss=MsoBodyText style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 12pt">Equifax – To order credit report, call 800-685-1111. To report credit fraud, call 800-525-6285.

s=MsoBodyText style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 12pt">List Removal

s=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 12pt">National Do Not Call Registry – The FTC created this national registry to make it easier to reduce the number of unwanted telemarketing calls you receive. You can register at or by calling 888-382-1222 from the number you wish to register. After you register, it takes about three months for the registration to take effect.

s=MsoBodyText style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 12pt">Direct Marketing Association – For information on how to remove your name from marketing lists, go to,

To remove your name from postal mailing lists, write to Direct Marketing Association Mail Preference Service, P.O. Box 643, Carmel, NY 10512. To remove your name from telephone lists, write to Direct Marketing Association Telephone Preference Service,
P.O. Box 1559, Carmel, NY 10512. 

Further Reading

s=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 12pt">Prying Eyes: Protect Your Privacy From People Who Sell to You, Snoop on You and Steal From You, by Eric Gertler, Random House, 2004. Provides real-life examples and prescribes easy-to-follow precautions and solutions to protecting your personal information.

Rick Shaffer is an attorney, financial writer and host of “The Money Show,” a call-in radio show.