The Federal Trade Commission estimates that as many as 9 million Americans have their identities stolen each year.
The financial counselors at Greenpath Debt Solutions in Marquette have offered some great information for helping consumers protect themselves from identity thieves.
Stuart Baker, one of the financial counselors at Greenpath, said the crime of identity theft can occur in many ways. Thieves can rent apartments, get utilities in your name, open credit cards, finance 'big-ticket' items like cars and RVs and in some cases, give your information to the police if they're arrested.
Identity thieves use many different ways to get your personal information, including by going through trash looking for bills or other paperwork with personal information on it, by using a special device to store your credit card numbers while processing your card, by sending email or the use of pop-ups online falsely claiming to be a financial institution or government agency and by stealing your mail, wallet, or purse to get your personal identification information.
"The best way to help prevent identity theft is to safeguard your Social Security number. Don't carry your card with you or write your number on any checks." Baker said.
Baker also suggests people check their bank and credit card statements every month for unfamiliar charges.
"Shredding your paperwork is a great way to prevent people from getting your information. Always shred your credit card receipts, statements, credit card offers, bank statements and cut up expired credit cards," Baker said. "Experts also advise consumers to be careful sharing information online, always select intricate passwords and never give personal information to anyone unless you initiated the call."
Receiving collection calls or letters on debts you don't remember incurring, accounts listed on your credit report that you don't recognize, not getting mail from your credit card companies or bank can all be signs that someone may have stolen your identity.
"The first thing I advise people to do if they've found those things is to get copies of their credit report from Experian, TransUnion and Equifax," Baker said. "If they see accounts they don't recognize, contact the credit bureaus and place a fraud alert on their file."
Consumers can get free copies of all three credit reports from www.AnnualCreditReport.com
If consumers don't know how to read their credit reports, local help is available from agencies like GreenPath.
"We offer free credit-report reviews to consumers. We help them understand how to read their credit report, give them tips on how to dispute items they don't recognize and tips on how to improve their credit score," Baker said. "Clients can bring in their own credit report or purchase any or all of the reports from us at the time of their appointment."
Determining you're the victim of identity theft is not the last step.
"Unfortunately, this problem will not correct itself and can get worse," Baker said. "However, help is available. The best place to get information on how to deal with identity theft is through the Federal Trade Commission website (www.ftc.gov/idtheft)."
The commission advises consumers to close the accounts by speaking with someone in the security or fraud departments of each company. Then file a complaint through the Federal Trade Commission. By printing and submitting the FTC complaint form, consumers can provide that to their local police department to be incorporated into a police report.
"The police report is an invaluable tool in helping to more-permanently flag your credit report with identity theft comments," Baker said. "This can help you slow down or stop the thief from opening more accounts."
All three of the credit bureaus will put an identity theft alert on your credit report for seven years if you have filed a police report.
"But you still need to review your credit report every three months to make sure no new accounts get opened," Baker said.
John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206.