Display
Feature | Oct. 7, 2013

Legally speaking: Protect yourself from identity theft and credit fraud

By Capt. Alan Serrano and Emily Benz 633rd Air Base Wing Staff Judge Advocate

Millions of Americans are victims of identity theft and credit fraud each year, and Airmen are no exception. Identity theft occurs when someone steals another's personal information and uses it without permission. Credit fraud happens when someone steals another's credit information and opens accounts in that name. Resolving these issues not only takes time and money, but can also leave victims with damaged finances and credit histories.

Thieves are resourceful, with many ways of finding or acquiring user's personal information. While there is no way to completely prevent identity theft and credit fraud, there are ways to reduce the risk of either happening.

Preventative measures
Protecting personal information before a problem arises can decrease the chances of becoming a victim of identity theft or credit fraud. Some of these easy steps can become regular habits that make the theft of personal identity more difficult for potential thieves.
  • Destroy records containing personal information. Many thieves obtain personal information by rummaging through garbage, both personal and private. Consider shredding or tearing up any credit card statements, paid bills, documents containing your personal information, and even junk mail with names and addresses on them.
  • Secure mail. Thieves may attempt to access mailboxes and their contents before the mail carrier, so regularly checking and emptying mailboxes is critical. Additionally, consider locking mailboxes or obtaining a post office box for increased security. Mailing bill payments and financially-sensitive items from a secured mailbox or post office can also limit thieves ability to access these items. 
  • Protect Social Security numbers. Social Security numbers are among the most personally identifiable pieces of information - and can provide the gateway to a victim's identity. Do not carry Social Security cards in purses or wallets, as they can easily be stolen or lost. Service members should avoid showing their military IDs for identification purposes, as their SSN may be printed on the back. Consider using another form of state-issued identification instead.
  • Monitor credit reports. Each person is entitled to one free annual credit report from each of the three reporting agencies: Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax. To request areport, visit AnnualCreditReport.com or call 1-877-322-8228. Users may also request a free report from each agency on a rotating basis, allowing them to check every four months. Checking more than once a year can allow users to spot discrepancies or alerts early. Review the report carefully for problems, be able to identify and recognize each account on the report, and keep alert for any unauthorized credit checks. This can be the first sign of an identity issue. When requesting a report, users will have to provide their name, address, SSN, date of birth, and answers to personal questions regarding their financial history. Each company may ask different questions to ensure security. Companies may charge a fee for additional reports. To request a report, contact: Equifax: 1-800-685-1111 or www.equifax.com; Experian: 1-888-397-3742 or www.experian.com; or TransUnion: 1-800-916-8800 or www.transunion.com.
  • Closely monitor credit card statements and bank accounts. Look for unauthorized and unrecognized charges or withdrawals on bank statements. Thieves may only need a credit card number to make purchases, without stealing other elements of a user's identity. Banks sometimes monitor for such fraudulent charges, but it is ultimately the cardholder's responsibility to report problems. Do not rely on the bank to check on accounts.
Signs of a Problem
As you are taking the recommended steps to prevent the theft of your information, it is important to be on guard for any signs of a problem so you can spot it early. Watch for unexplained charges to or withdrawals from your bank accounts, unfamiliar accounts or charges on your credit report, or debt collector calls regarding debts that you didn't incur. Also look out for IRS notices indicating that multiple tax returns were filed under your name for the same year, as a thief may be trying to obtain a refund. Immediately check your accounts if you receive notice of a data breach or security compromise at a company where you do business or have an account. Finally, be on the lookout for merchants not accepting your checks, medical providers sending you bills for services you didn't use, or health plans rejecting your insurance claims because records indicate you have already reached your benefit limit. These may all be signs that someone is attempting to use your information.

Steps to take
If users suspect their identity or information has been stolen, there are several steps to take as soon as possible. 
  • Contact the credit reporting agencies. Upon noticing a problem, users should call one of the reporting agencies to ask them to put an initial fraud alert on their credit report. This agency will alert other agencies, making it harder for thieves to open more accounts in the user's name. Any business must verify a user's identity by contacting them before it issuing credit if there is an alert on the user's account. Ensure agencies have correct contact information. For civilians, this alert will remain on their account for 90 days, renewable for an additional 90 days after that period expires. Active duty Service members can request an Active Duty Fraud Alert that lasts one year. If a user provides evidence, such as a police report, they can request that the alert last for seven years. An alert also entitles users to request an additional free credit report from each of the reporting agencies, even if they have already requested a free annual report. Record the date of the call, and keep copies of any correspondence.
  • Contact the companies through which the thieves opened accounts. Users can call the company involved and ask to speak to their fraud or security departments to report the fraud. If there is an unauthorized charge on their bank account or credit card, account holders should call the bank involved to request that those charges be removed. Record the dates of any conversations or letters, follow up all oral communication in writing, and keep copies of all correspondence. Send all correspondence by certified mail, and ask for a return receipt.
  • File an Identity Theft Report. Even though it is very difficult to catch a thief who, by definition, is not using his own identity, filing a report with the Federal Trade Commission and local law enforcement will help protect users going forward. Users can use these reports to get fraudulent information removed from credit reports, stop debt collection resulting from the theft, place an extended fraud alert on credit reports, and get information from companies about accounts opened or misused. To file a complaint with the FTC, visit www.ftc.gov/complaint, complete as much of the form as possible, and save the complaint reference number.. Save and/or print a copy of the affidavit. Users can also call the FTC at 1-877-438-4338 or 1-866-653-4261 to give their report to a representative. Ask for a copy of the reference number and affidavit password, as users can go online and print a copy of your affidavit. Next, file a police report. Bring a copy of the affidavit, any other proof of the theft, a government-issued photo ID, and proof of address to the police department. Ask for a copy of the report for records.
By taking preventative measures and remain vigilant, users can greatly reduce the risk of becoming a victim of identity theft and credit fraud. However, there is no way to completely prevent identity theft and credit fraud. For assistance, make an appointment to visit the Law Center during legal assistance hours by calling 764-3277.