Identity theft: A 5-Minute Expert guide to outsmarting the scammers

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Melissa McCarthy was only acting in Identity Thief. Real scammers make off with a massive amount of personal information every year.

Mon, Jun 19, 2017 (2 a.m.)

Identity theft refers to all types of crime in which someone wrongfully obtains and fraudulently uses another person’s personal data, typically for economic gain.

The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that almost 20 million people a year become victims of identity theft. In 2015, the Federal Trade Commission received more than 490,000 related consumer complaints, representing a 47 percent increase over the previous year.

Fraudsters have stolen more than $112 billion over the past six years — about $35,600 every minute.

As quickly as scams are identified and defenses are put up, new tactics emerge. Here are tips on staying ahead of them.

HOW INFORMATION IS COMPROMISED BY THIEVES

• Stealing wallets, purses or mail

• Stealing information from unsecured websites

• Stealing information from business or personal records

• Rummaging through the trash for personal data

• Posing by phone or email as an employer, landlord, creditor or nonprofit group

• Buying information from inside sources, such as store employees

STOP IDENTITY THEFT BEFORE IT HAPPENS

• Share information discriminatively.

• Securely dispose of documents that contain your personal information.

• Ask questions before sharing information.

• Secure your electronic devices.

• Limit what you carry. When you leave your home, take only the identification, credit cards and debit cards you need.

• Lock your financial documents and records in a safe place at home, and lock your wallet or purse in a safe place at work.

• Don’t give out personal information via phone, mail or internet unless you initiated the contact.

• Before sharing information, ask why it is needed, how it will be safeguarded and the consequences of not sharing it.

• Permanently delete information from electronic devices before disposing of them

• Take outgoing mail to the post office. Promptly remove mail that arrives in your mailbox.

DO: use strong passwords, keep them private, and avoid automatic logins that save your username and password.

DO: shred documents that contain your personal information, including receipts, insurance forms, credit applications, checks and bank statements.

DO: use anti-virus, anti-spyware and encryption software.

DO: destroy the labels on prescription bottles before throwing them out.

DO: Review each of your three credit reports at least once a year.

DON'T: send sensitive information using a public wireless network.

CLUES THAT YOU'VE BEEN COMPROMISED

• Unexplained withdrawals from your bank account

• Missing mail

• Merchants refuse your checks

• Unexpected calls from debt collectors

• Unfamiliar accounts or charges on your credit report

• Bills from service providers you didn’t use

• Notification from the IRS of more than one tax return filed in your name

PRO TIP: identitytheft.gov is the federal government’s one-stop resource for victims of identity theft. The site provides checklists and sample documents to guide you through the recovery process.

What scammers can do with your information: Once identity thieves have your personal information, they can drain your bank account, run up credit-card charges, open new utility accounts, get medical treatment on your health insurance, file a tax refund in your name or commit any number of other frauds.

THE LATEST PHONE SCAM

A call comes in from an unknown number. You pick up, and there’s silence on the line. “Hello,” you respond. A voice replies, “Oh, hi there,” and apologizes for “having trouble with my headset.” Then she asks the big question: “Can you hear me now?”

Whatever you do, don’t say “yes.” This voice is a robocall that relies on conversational cues to trick you into saying yes.

Why? If you reply, “Yeah, I can hear you,” the scammers behind this call can edit your voice to make it appear like you have agreed to something. They can make it look like you have authorized a transaction and then post a charge to your account. In recent months, hundreds of consumers have filed complaints with the Federal Trade Commission about the robocall.

The FTC recommends hanging up and entering your number in the Do Not Call registry (donotcall.gov/). As artificial intelligence improves with speech technology, scammers are expected to become craftier about tricking consumers into believing they’re talking to a real person. Some experts predict it may become difficult to distinguish between a person and a chatbot.

WHAT TO DO IF YOU'VE BEEN VICTIMIZED

1) Contact the Federal Trade Commission and make referrals to law enforcement and credit reporting agencies. An FTC identity theft report also proves to businesses that someone stole your identity.

nftccomplaintassistant.gov; 1-877-438-4338; Consumer Response Center, FTC, 600 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20580

2) Contact the fraud units of the three principal credit reporting companies. Ask them to enact a free 90-day fraud alert to block someone from opening new accounts in your name. (When an alert is on a report, businesses must verify a person’s identity before issuing new credit.) You can renew after 90 days. Equifax: (800) 525-6285; P.O. Box 740250, Atlanta, GA 30374 / Experian: (888) 397-3742; P.O. Box 1017, Allen, TX 75013 / TransUnion: (800) 680-7289; P.O. Box 6790, Fullerton, CA 92834

3) Contact all creditors affected by the fraud and ask them to close or freeze the accounts and change your login information and password. Request that the businesses send you a letter confirming that the fraudulent accounts or charges aren’t yours, that you aren’t liable for them and that they were removed from your credit report.

4) Contact all financial institutions affected by the fraud to cancel accounts, place stop-payment orders on outstanding checks and change passwords.

5) Order copies of your credit report, and review the reports for accounts or transactions you don’t recognize. Send a copy of your identity theft report and proof of your identity to each of the three credit bureaus, and ask them to block any fraudulent information listed.

6) File a report with your local police agency. Bring a copy of your identity theft report and any other evidence of the fraud. Keep a copy of the police report for your records.

7) If the fraud involves mail, contact the Postal Inspection Service.

npostalinspectors.uspis.gov; 1-877-876-2455

8) If your Social Security number is being used fraudulently, contact the Internal Revenue Service and Social Security Administration. irs.gov; 1-800-829-0433 / ssa.gov; 1-800-269-0271

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