In 2012, the South Carolina Department of Revenue’s tax data was compromised because of a security breach and millions of residents feared the unknown consequences of having their social security numbers, dates of birth, addresses, and other personal identifying information “out there.” A malware-infested email that was sent to the department’s employees was later blamed for the breach. The malware, once opened in the email, allowed hackers to infect the department’s computer system and retrieve citizens’ personal identifying information from the department.
This is just one example of a crime that is all too common, but large-scale data breaches are not the only way someone can get your personal identifying information. Have you ever lost your purse or wallet? Have you ever had your mail stolen? Has someone ever “dumpster dived” through your trash for documents that might contain your personal information? Have you ever given your personal information out over the telephone or in an email to someone posing as a debt collector or a valid business like a power company? All of these examples are ways in which someone can steal your identity.
Identity theft is the deliberate use of someone else’s identity, usually as a method to gain a financial advantage or obtain credit and other benefits using the other person’s name. In South Carolina, at least 18 distinct laws have been passed that make identity theft a crime. Many of these violations are felony offenses and are punishable by up to ten years in prison. But, how do you know if you are the victim of identity theft? The Federal Trade Commission and the South Carolina Department of Consumer Affairs have identified some common indicators that someone has stolen your identity:
- You see unexplained withdrawals from your bank account
- Debt collectors call you about debts that are not yours
- You find unfamiliar accounts on your credit report
- The IRS notifies you that more than one tax return was filed in your name or that you have income from an employer for whom you did not work
- You are arrested for a crime someone else allegedly committed using your name and information
If this has happened to you, there are some steps you should take immediately.
PLACE A FRAUD ALERT ON YOUR CREDIT REPORTS
It is free to do this step. By doing this, potential creditors are required to take additional steps to verify that the applicant is in fact you. This measure will last for 90 days. You only have to contact one of the three credit reporting agencies to place the alert. You can reach the credit reporting agencies at the following telephone numbers:
CONSIDER PLACING A CREDIT FREEZE ON YOUR CREDIT REPORT
Once you place a Freeze on your credit reports, a business cannot access your credit report without your permission for new products or services. Unlike the Fraud Alert, a Freeze lasts until you remove it, and also unlike a Fraud Alert, you must contact each individual credit reporting agency to place a Freeze on your reports. You will receive a personal identification number (PIN) that will allow you to thaw or lift the Freeze. A Freeze does not affect your existing lines of credit.
CLOSE AFFECTED/FRAUDULENT ACCOUNTS AND DISPUTE THEM
Get dispute forms from the companies who own or service the account. When you return the form, send the form certified mail, return receipt requested back to the company. Once the dispute process is complete, ask for a letter that confirms the accounts and fraudulent debts are resolved, and keep copies of ALL correspondence for your personal records. Keep detailed records of who you talked to and when, and when you send supporting document, send copies and not originals.
CONTINUE TO MONITOR YOUR FINANCIAL AND PERSONAL INFORMATION
Pay careful attention to whether your bills and statements are arriving on time and contain complete and accurate information. Consider using a credit monitoring service to assist you in looking for any fraudulent or suspicious activity, and as always, request your FREE annual credit reports. You get three each year; one from Equifax, Experian, and Trans Union. Just call (877) 322-8228 or visit www.annualcreditreport.com
Unfortunately for us all, identity theft is a crime that is here to stay, but you can take some steps to make it more difficult for someone to steal your personal identifying information. Always use STRONG passwords for any online accounts that you may have. Consider using a combination of upper and lower case letters, numbers, and symbols and don’t use the same password for more than one account. Take outgoing bills directly to the post office or drop them in an official USPS blue mailbox. Shred all documents that contain your personal identifying information on them; don’t just throw these items in the trash. By taking precautions to guard your personal identifying information, it will be more difficult for someone to steal your identity. A good bit or common sense goes a long way in preventing identity theft- don’t give someone you don’t know or trust this information about you, especially if they call you and tell you that they are calling from a utility company or a governmental office, but they need you to provide them with your social security number and other information.
Ryan F. McCarty