Identity theft is one of the top consumer fraud problems. Identity theft occurs when someone obtains and illegally uses another person’s identifying information (such as the person’s name, address, date of birth, Social Security number or driver’s license number) to open credit accounts, get loans, make purchases, establish utility service, etc.
Q: How can I protect myself from identity theft?
A: There is no foolproof way to protect yourself from identify theft, but there are precautions you can take. For example, you should never throw away any mail or personal documents without tearing them up or shredding them, particularly any credit offers you may receive in the mail. Never carry your Social Security card. Always put it in a safe and secure place, such as a safety deposit box. Never disclose your Social Security number or your phone number to anyone unless you are very certain of how it will be used and who will use it. Consider having a "credit freeze" put on your file by a credit reporting agency. Such an action can lock your credit down so new accounts cannot be opened without your knowledge. Some companies now sell identity theft insurance, and you may want to consider buying it. Finally, monitor your credit record regularly.
Q: How can I monitor my credit record?
A: You are entitled to a free copy of your credit report once each year from each of the three major credit reporting agencies in the United States, and you can get a free copy of your credit report online at www.AnnualCreditReport.com or call (877) 322-8228. You can also write, call or click to reach these agencies:
TransUnion: 1-800-680-7289; www.transunion.com; Fraud Victim Assistance Division, P.O. Box 6790, Fullerton, CA 92834-6790
Equifax: 1-800-525-6285; www.equifax.com; P.O. Box 740241, Atlanta, GA 30374-0241
Experian: 1-888-EXPERIAN (397-3742); www.experian.com; P.O. Box 9554, Allen, TX 75013
Q: What should I do if I become a victim of identity theft?
A: Unfortunately, you will need to make many phone calls, complete forms and do a lot of footwork. It can take a long time to recover. You might explore resources available through the Internet. Ffor example, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has a "one stop national resource" through www.ftc.gov/idtheft that offers information on detecting and defending against identity theft. As soon as you have determined that your identity has been stolen, first put a "fraud alert" on your credit reports and look for any recent, suspicious activity on your credit record and your recent credit card statements. Second, if any of your accounts have been accessed or opened by someone other than you, immediately call the fraud department of each company associated with your accounts and close those accounts. Third, file a complaint with the FTC by calling 1-877-ID-THEFT or by writing to ID Theft, FTC, 600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20580. Fourth, immediately report the identity theft to your local law enforcement office and the Ohio Attorney General's office (www.OhioAttorneyGeneral.gov or call 800-282-0515).
Q: If I find out who stole my identity, can I take private legal action against that person to recover what I’ve lost?
A: Yes, but private legal action can be difficult. The person who stole your identity may not have much in the way of money or assets, and may even be in another state or country. Even if you win a court judgment against the person, you may not be able to recover what you’ve lost. Sometimes identity thieves are “enabled” by the negligent or sloppy practices of credit companies. Recent cases have allowed damaged or injured consumers to seek legal recourse against such companies, but your recovery is not guaranteed and still may be difficult and limited. You may want to contact your local bar association and ask for a referral to a consumer law attorney near you.
Q: Are there any new laws on the horizon that may help ease this problem?
A: While new laws are being considered regarding services that collect and broker personal information, Congress presently shows no inclination to impose greater duties on the credit industry to ensure accurate reporting of information, or to provide for strong, private legal remedies to hold the credit industry responsible for errors. For the most part, it's up to you to protect yourself.
This "Law You Can Use" consumer legal information column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association. It was originally prepared by John A. Blaufuss, a Toledo attorney, and updated by Ron Burdge, a Dayton consumer law attorney.