Protecting against identity theft

Fraud alert: a notification that a credit reporting agency sends to creditors after you've reported being hit by identity theft. The alert advises creditors to follow certain precautions before opening new accounts in your name or making changes to your existing accounts.

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Identity theft happens when someone uses your name, credit card number, Social Security number (SSN), password or other identifying data to make purchases, get cash or otherwise commit fraud. As many as nine million Americans become victims of identity theft each year, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

If identity theft happens to you, it could affect your credit worthiness and other aspects of your financial well-being and disrupt your life and that of your family for years to come. But there are ways you can protect your personal information from being compromised and important steps you can take if you find yourself a victim of identity theft.

How might thieves steal your identity?
Identity thieves use a variety of ways to steal your personal information, including:

  • Rummaging through your trash or mailbox, breaking into your home or stealing your purse, wallet or mobile phone. Any of these activities can enable thieves to gain access to your personal information.
  • Phishing. Posing as a legitimate business, thieves can send messages to your email inbox or cause pop-up messages to appear on your computer screen in an attempt to get you to provide personal information.
  • Hacking your computer. While you’re on the Internet, hackers at a remote location can gain access to data on your computer, including bank account information, credit card numbers and passwords. Also, after you toss away your computer, criminals may be able to obtain data remaining on the hard drive.
  • Skimming. This generally involves using a magnetic card reader to steal your credit or debit card number while a transaction is being processed through an ATM machine or a keypad in a store.

How can you prevent it from happening to you?
There are a number of relatively easy ways to guard against identity theft. For example:

  • Use a shredder. Shred charge receipts, copies of credit applications, bank statements, checks, insurance forms, physician statements, old credit and debit cards you no longer need and pre-approved credit card offers sent to you by mail.
  • Carry only necessary to-go items in your purse or wallet. Leave everything else safely locked up at home. And be aware that you may be especially vulnerable to having your purse or wallet stolen while visiting a destination where tourists frequently become targets of theft.
  • Protect your mobile phone with a password. Even if you do use a password, store as little personal information as possible on the phone to protect this information in the event the phone is lost or stolen.
  • Never click a link in an unsolicited email or pop-up message. If you're curious about whether an email is actually from the well-known organization named as the sender, contact the organization by phone or email to ask if the offer you received is legitimate.
  • Use a firewall. Firewall software can shield your computer from hackers. Antivirus and other types of security protection software are also available for purchase (and, in some cases, free of charge) from many well-known computer merchandisers.
  • Wipe out your old hard drive. Before you dispose of an old computer, use software that's designed to destroy the hard drive and all its files. Or, you can have the hard drive destroyed by a computer professional.
  • Use hard-to-guess passwords. When creating an online password for a credit card, bank or investment account, avoid obvious choices like your mother’s maiden name, your birth date, the last four digits of your SSN or phone number or consecutive numerals.
  • Log out. When you use a computer at your workplace or other public space to access your personal financial accounts, be sure to log out and close your browser afterward.
  • Secure your SSN. Never carry your Social Security card in your purse or wallet. Think carefully before giving your SSN to vendors and do not leave it in public view or write it on a check.
  • Avoid being skimmed. Inspect any ATM, gas pump or credit card reader before inserting your credit or debit card. Look for evidence of tampering with the reader, such as tape, glue residue or scratches or other damage. Don't use the machine if you're suspicious of it. If you have a choice, use an ATM located inside a building rather than an outdoor one, because it's harder for criminals to install a skimming device on an indoor unit. If you insert your card into an ATM and the card isn't returned, call your bank immediately.

How can you find out if you're already a victim?
The sooner you discover you’ve been hit by identity theft, the sooner you can act to prevent or limit potentially harmful consequences from occurring. So it pays to know the warning signs. If you’re failing to receive certain bills or other mail, it could mean that a thief changed the address on these items. Watch for mysterious withdrawals from your checking, savings and investment accounts. Other indications of identity theft include charges on your credit card statements that you don't recognize, being denied credit for no apparent reason and being contacted by debt collectors or stores about purchases you did not make.

Keep tabs on your credit reports. Under federal law, every 12 months, you're entitled to get a free copy of your report from each of the three nationwide credit reporting agencies (CRAs): Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. To order a free report, go to AnnualCreditReport.com or call 877 322-8228. Once you receive the report, if it contains any accounts you don't recognize or information that is inaccurate, notify the CRA and the company behind the account or information in question. To learn more about credit reports as well as your own personal credit scores, take a look at our article on Keeping good credit.

Consider subscribing to a fraud alert service offered by one of the CRAs. Also, check to see if your bank and credit card companies offer a service in which they will notify you if they spot unusual activity in your account.

What if your identity has been stolen?
If you suspect you’ve been hit by identity theft, here’s what to do:

  • Notify a CRA. To report a stolen credit or debit card or someone using your card account without your approval, call the fraud department at one of the three nationwide CRAs: Equifax, 800 525-6285; Experian, 888 397-3742; or TransUnion, 800 680-7289. Calling only one CRA will suffice; the agency you call will notify the other two agencies. All three CRAs will then send your credit report to you free of charge so you can check for indications of fraud and notify the CRAs of your findings.
  • Contact creditors. Call the fraud department of any company where an account was opened or used without your approval. Follow up in writing and provide copies of supporting documents.
  • File a police report. Keep a copy of the report, or at least the report number, in the event you need to validate claims to creditors.
  • File a complaint with the FTC. Victims' complaints help law enforcement officials track down and prosecute identity thieves. Go to ftc.gov/idtheft or call 877 IDTHEFT (438-4338).

Explore further
Visit tiaa-cref.org for broader Financial Education, including a variety of resources to help you improve your financial well-being.

The material is for informational purposes only and should not be regarded as a recommendation or an offer to buy or sell any product or service to which this information may relate. Certain products and services may not be available to all entities or persons. Please note that investing involves risk.

© 2014 and prior years, Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association - College Retirement Equities Fund (TIAA-CREF), New York, NY 10017