AgriLife Extension expert: Consumers can increase vigilance on identity theft

FTC report shows U.S. consumers lost $1.6 billion-plus to fraud in 2013

COLLEGE STATION – Identity theft continues to top the list of consumer complaints, according to a recent report by the Federal Trade Commission.

The report noted that American consumers lost over $1.6 billion to fraud in 2013, based on more than  2 million complaints reported in the agency’s Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book 2013. Of these complaints, 14 percent were identity theft-related.

Complaints against debt collectors, banks and lenders, imposter scams, and telephone and mobile services rounded out the report’s top five consumer complaint categories.

The FTC's website has information on how to protect against or mitigate the financial impact of identity theft.  (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo)

The FTC’s website has additional information on how to protect against or mitigate the financial impact of identity theft. Americans lost more than $1.6 billion to fraud in 2013, with identity theft leading consumer complaints. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo)

“With the amount of personal information available on the Internet and other opportunities for identity theft through stealing mail, credit card numbers and other data, it is increasingly important that consumers take all necessary precautions to avoid such a situation,” said Dr.  Joyce Cavanagh, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service specialist in family economics at Texas A&M University in College Station.

Cavanagh added that large data security breaches across the country also have resulted in greater consumer concern about identity theft.

“Identity theft results when your personal information is stolen and used by someone else to open new accounts in your name, access your existing accounts or assume your identity in financial and other transactions,” she said. “While it is not possible to completely eliminate the risk of becoming a victim, there are things you can do to minimize your risk.”

Cavanagh provided some tips for lowering the risk of identity theft, including:

— First and foremost, check your credit report at least once a year. Many people first learn they have been a victim of identity theft when they are turned down for credit because of a poor credit record. Under the Fair and Accurate Credit Transaction Act, consumers can obtain one free copy of their credit report every 12 months from each of the three major credit-reporting agencies. To monitor throughout the year, request your report from a different credit-reporting agency every four months rather than all three at the same time. To access your free report, visit http://www.annualcreditreport.com or call toll free at 877-322-8228. This is the only official website for obtaining your free report under this law.

— If you are notified that your personal information has been breached or you suspect your information has been breached, it is recommended that you notify the fraud department of at least one of the credit-reporting agencies, which should contact the other two credit bureaus, and request that a fraud alert be placed on your file. The fraud alert tells creditors who request your credit report that fraud has been associated with your report. Creditors should attempt to contact you to confirm that you actually applied for the credit that generated the credit report. This action should lessen the chance of any new fraudulent credit accounts being opened. Be sure to verify with the credit bureaus how long the initial fraud alert will remain on your account and what you need to do to extend it.

–Texas law allows you to ‘freeze’ your credit files by requesting a “security freeze.” A security freeze means that your credit file cannot be provided to anyone other than your current creditors monitoring current accounts, so that an identity thief is much less likely to be able to obtain credit in your name. This is a good option for people who do not plan to apply for credit anytime soon, particularly older consumers. To request a security freeze, make a request in writing by certified mail to each credit reporting agency – Experian, TransUnion and Equifax. A $10 fee applies to place the security freeze at each credit-reporting agency, and an additional $10 fee applies to lift the freeze in advance of applying for credit in the future. Victims of identity theft do not have to pay the $10 fee. For more details, go to http://www.consumersunion.org/pdf/security/securityTX.pdf.

— Guard your Social Security Number. Don’t routinely carry your Social Security card with you. Leave it in a safe, secure place at home, and only bring it with you when you need it. Consider carrying a copy of your Medicare card with all but the last four numbers blocked out.

— Secure your personal information at home, especially if you have people working in your home. Use a lock box or locked file cabinet.

— Never give out personal information over the phone, in person or via email or the Internet unless you have initiated the contact, or are familiar with the person you are dealing with and know the person has a legitimate need for the information. Financial institutions and businesses will not contact you and ask you to verify account information they already have on file.

— Reduce the amount of information, requests and offers you receive in the mail. To opt out of prescreened credit offers, call 888-567-8688 or go to http://www.optoutprescreen.com. To remove your name from telemarketing calls, go to http://www.texasnocall.com and http://www.donotcall.gov. To remove your name from direct marketing lists, go to http://www.dmachoice.org.

— Guard your mail and trash. Shred all documents with personal information before you throw it away – preferably with a crosscut shredder. Always place outgoing mail in a secure post office collection box rather than your own mailbox to prevent your mail from being stolen to obtain your account information. Consider getting a locked mailbox or using a post office box for incoming mail.

— Only carry the identification, credit and debit cards, and other account information you need. Ask yourself if you would remember what credit cards or means of identification were in your wallet or purse if it were stolen.

–Use virus protection software and a firewall program on your computer. Never download files or click on links from people you don’t know or trust.

Cavanagh suggested consumers go to the Federal Trade Commission website at http://FTC.gov/idtheft for additional tips on how to prevent or reduce the financial damage incurred as a result of identity theft.

The FTC enters consumer complaints into the Consumer Sentinel Network. The network is a secure online database, available to more than 2,000 civil and criminal law enforcement agencies nationwide, and is used to research cases, identify victims and track possible targets.

The commission also advises anyone who is the victim of identity theft or another fraud-related issue to file a complaint online at http://www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov/  or call 1-877-FTC-HELP (877-382-4357).

Cavanagh said additional information on identity theft protection may be found at:

— The Social Security Administration website, http://www.ssa.gov/pubs/10064.html.

— The Identity Theft Resource Center website at http://www.idtheftcenter.org.

— The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse website at http://www.privacyrights.org.

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