Identity theft occurs when someone uses your personal information (like name, Social Security number, credit card number, etc.) without your permission, to commit fraud or other crimes.

The FTC estimates that as many as 9 million Americans have their identities stolen each year. Identity thieves can obtain credit cards, rent an apartment, or open all kinds of accounts with a ‘stolen’ name. Often the crime goes undetected for weeks or even months, until the victim runs a credit report or gets a credit card statement and notices bizarre charges. Sometimes the first clue is a call from a debt collector.

This is more than an inconvenience. While some victims can fix things quickly, others have to spend hundreds of dollars and hours repairing their good name and credit record. You may lose out on a job, a student loan, or financing for housing or cars because of a fraudulently ruined credit rating. Some people have even been arrested for crimes they did not commit.

Students as Targets

The Federal Trade Commission says that 18- to 24-year-olds are a high-risk group, second only to ages 25 to 34. College-age people are easier targets because they move around a lot, may have multiple ‘residences’ (like home and school), and don’t have much of a credit history to compare against. That makes it more difficult for merchants or credit companies to distinguish between a legitimate credit application and a fraudulent one. They also usually don’t check their credit reports or imagine themselves as targets.

Also, there are ongoing concerns that students disclose so much info on Facebook and the like that they are making ‘fishing’ much easier for identity thieves. Mike Cook of ID Analytics, a San Diego identity risk management company, says, "If you're going to steal an identity, a student identity is a very good one to steal."

How It Happens

Many times, we make the assumption that nobody’s going to go to a lot of trouble to steal our identity. I mean, digging through somebody’s trash… yuck! But a Social Security number or credit card account number can be worth thousands of dollars to a thief… and that’s worth them digging through your trash. Here are some ways your info can be pilfered:

  • Dumpster Diving. They rummage through trash looking for bills or other paper with your personal information on it.
  • Skimming. A dishonest merchant can steal credit/debit card numbers by using a special storage device when processing your card.
  • Phishing. They pretend to be financial institutions or companies and send spam or pop-up messages to get you to reveal your personal information.
  • Changing Your Address. They divert your billing statements to another location by completing a change of address form.
  • Old-Fashioned Stealing. They steal wallets and purses; mail, including bank and credit card statements; pre-approved credit offers; and new checks or tax information. They steal personnel records, or bribe employees who have access.
  • Pretexting. They use false pretenses to obtain your personal information from financial institutions, telephone companies, and other sources.

How Bad Can It Be?

Bad. Really bad. Sometimes really really bad. Here are some ways that stolen identities get used:

Credit card fraud:
  • They may open new credit card accounts in your name. When they use the cards and don't pay the bills, the delinquent accounts appear on your credit report.
  • They may change the billing address on your credit card so that you no longer receive bills, and then run up charges on your account. Because your bills are now sent to a different address, it may be some time before you realize there's a problem.
Phone or utilities fraud:
  • They may open a new phone or wireless account in your name, or run up charges on your existing account.
  • They may use your name to get utility services like electricity, heating, or cable TV.
Bank/finance fraud:
  • They may create counterfeit checks using your name or account number.
  • They may open a bank account in your name and write bad checks.
  • They may clone your ATM or debit card and make electronic withdrawals, draining your accounts.
  • They may take out a loan in your name.
Government documents fraud:
  • They may get a driver's license or official ID card in your name but with their picture.
  • They may use your name and Social Security number to get government benefits.
  • They may file a fraudulent tax return using your information.
Other fraud:
  • They may get a job using your Social Security number.
  • They may rent a house or get medical services using your name.
  • They may give your personal information to police during an arrest. If they don't show up for their court date, a warrant for arrest would then be issued for you!

What to Do: Deter, Detect, Defend

Awareness is an effective weapon against many forms of identity theft. Be aware of how information is stolen and what you can do to protect yours, monitor your personal information to uncover any problems quickly, and know what to do when you suspect your identity has been stolen.

DETER identity thieves by safeguarding your information.

  • Buy yourself a shredder. A small one costs less than $30. Shred anything that’s got any crucial numbers or info on it.
  • Protect your Social Security number; think long and hard before giving it to anybody.
  • Don't carry your Social Security card or your PIN number(s) on you.
  • Don’t give out personal information unless you’re sure whom you’re dealing with (be especially with online purchases).
  • Don’t use obvious passwords.
  • Keep your information secure; don’t leave your credit card statements on your desk, and don’t leave backpacks and purses unattended.

DETECT suspicious activity by routinely monitoring your financial accounts and billing statements. The best way to find out is to monitor your accounts and bank statements each month, and check your credit report on a regular basis. If you check your credit report regularly, you may be able to limit the damage caused by identity theft.

  • Be alert for mail or bills that don’t arrive. Follow-up if you are denied credit for no apparent reason.
  • Inspect your credit report regularly. The law entitles you to one free report per year from each nationwide credit reporting agencies but you must request it, either online: www.AnnualCreditReport.com; by phone: 1-877-322-8228; or by mail: Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, GA 30348-5281. BE AWARE: other sites with similar names that advertise (like freecreditreport.com) require you to sign up (and pay) for a credit-monitoring service.
  • Inspect your financial statements (Bank/ATM, credit cards, etc.). Look for charges you didn’t make.

DEFEND against identity theft as soon as you suspect a problem. Filing a police report, checking your credit reports, notifying creditors, and disputing any unauthorized transactions are some of the steps you must take immediately to restore your good name.

  • Place a “Fraud Alert” on your credit reports by calling any one of the three nationwide credit-reporting companies. If you call one, they will notify the other two. Review these reports carefully, looking for fraudulent activity.
  • Contact the Federal Trade Commission. You should file an ID Theft Complaint with the FTC and bring your printed ID Theft Complaint with you to the police station when you file your police report. The printed ID Theft Complaint can be used to support your local police report to ensure that it includes the detail required.
  • File a police report; specifically, an Identity Theft Report (ITR); this entitles you to certain legal rights when it is provided to credit agencies. An ITR can permanently block fraudulent information, such as bogus accounts or addresses, from appearing on your credit report, will make sure these debts do not reappear on your credit reports, and will prevent companies from coming after you for fraudulent charges. An Identity Theft Report is also needed to place an extended fraud alert on your credit report.
  • Close accounts that have been tampered with or opened fraudulently, and contact merchants who had fraudulent transactions with the thief. A police report is also needed to get copies of the thief’s bogus credit applications, as well as transaction information from merchants that dealt with the thief. To get this information, you must submit a request in writing, accompanied by the police report, to the address specified by the merchant for this purpose.

So, Hey, Let’s Be Careful Out There

Yes, it can happen to you; in fact, you’re a prime target. But no, it’s not inevitable; there are lots of steps you can take to protect yourself, steps that are minor inconveniences compared to the alternative. If you want more information, here are some resources:

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) ftc.gov/idtheft or 1-877-ID-THEFT
Identity Theft Clearinghouse
Federal Trade Commission
600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20580

The Credit Bureaus

o Free Annual Credit Report: www.AnnualCreditReport.com

o Equifax: 1-800-525-6285 www.equifax.com/home

o Experian: 1-888-397-3742 www.experian.com

o TransUnion: 1-800-680-7289 www.transunion.com

Stay Safe Online: A collaborative effort between corporate and government organizations to "empower a digital society to use the Internet safely and securely at home, work, and school, protecting the technology individuals use, the networks they connect to, and our shared digital assets."

EDITOR'S NOTE: Public-domain information from the FTC was used extensively in preparation of this story.