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Identity Theft and Protection: Prevention is the Best Defense

August 25, 2008

By: Jim Oosterman
Melrose Bank

A recent survey shows that more than eight million adults in the United States were victims of identity theft last year. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says that identity theft was its top consumer complaint five years in a row. By now you’ve heard the warnings and know what a serious crime ID theft is. It can destroy your credit, and because it can take years for a victim to recover, prevention is the best defense.

How it Happens
Identity theft occurs when your personal information is stolen and used without your knowledge to commit fraud or simply take your money. Skilled identity thieves use a variety of methods to steal your personal information. Some of those methods are low-tech – like rummaging through your trash to find bills, bank statements and other discarded paper with your personal data on it, or stealing wallets and purses. Thieves might also steal your mail, including bank and credit card statements, pre-approved credit offers, new checks or tax information. ID thieves can even take your outgoing mail if your mailbox isn’t secure. Another method thieves use is requesting a change of address in your name, thereby diverting your mail to another location.

There are also more high-tech ways for criminals to get their hands on your identity and money. Dishonest store clerks or restaurant staff can steal credit or debit card numbers by using a handheld device called a skimmer when processing your card. The skimmer allows them to get the account info on your credit card’s magnetic strip. Skimmers can also be illegally attached to ATM machines. The data can later be downloaded into a computer and used for online shopping or to make credit card counterfeits. In other instances, thieves pretend to be banks or companies and send spam or pop-up messages to get you to reveal your banking or other personal information through e-mail.

What to do if it Happens to You
If you have reason to believe that you have been a victim of identity theft or that you may become a victim because some personal information has been taken or volunteered by you, there are many steps to take in reporting the crime. Call your local authorities. A police report can help you when you’re working to prove you’ve been victimized. Then, in addition to your local bank, contact the three major consumer credit reporting companies (Experian, Equifax and TransUnion) and issue a Fraud Alert. This tells creditors that you must be contacted and your identity verified before extending credit or making any changes to your existing accounts.

Close all credit accounts that you suspect were either fraudulently opened in your name or which were accessed by a thief. The FTC also has a toll-free number, 1-877-IDTHEFT that you can call to file a report. Other agencies you might consider contacting: the Social Security Administration, if you suspect that your Social Security number is being used, and the Registry of Motor Vehicles, if the ID thief tried to use your personal information to get a driver’s license.

Protect Yourself
Keeping in mind all the ways that you might be vulnerable to identity thieves, there are things you can do to protect yourself. The following list includes several simple changes in daily habits;

  • Photocopy both sides of your credit cards so you have all the account numbers, expiration dates and phone numbers if your wallet or purse is stolen and can respond quickly.
  • Don’t use passwords that anyone can guess, and memorize all PINs and passwords – never write them down.
  • Do not carry every credit card and identification you own all the time.
  • Never give your credit card number or personal information over the phone unless you have initiated the call and trust that business or person.
  • Avoid using your credit card in places where you have to let it out of your sight.
  • Protect your computer with Firewalls and Antivirus programs.
  • Do not click links in unsolicited e-mail or purchase anything online from unknown sources.
  • Shred or tear up documents that contain your personal data before you throw them away.
  • Do not mail bill payments and checks from home. They can be stolen from your mailbox.
  • Always check your monthly bills for suspicious items.
  • Be aware of your surroundings at an ATM, in the bank, or wherever you might be writing down personal information. Some thieves might try to sneak a peek over your shoulder when you’re punching in a password, or filling out a bank slip or some other form.

There are also some ways you can be more proactive in protecting your identity. Many credit experts recommend that you subscribe to a credit report monitoring service that will notify you whenever someone applies for credit in your name. You can also enroll in services that will assist you in the process of helping you reclaim your good credit and give you the information you need to protect yourself. You can also get a free report from the three credit bureaus to keep track of your spending activities and prevent identity theft.

Banks have privacy policies. Ask your local bank under what scenarios they would make your account information available to someone else and what the bank’s protocol is for requesting personal or account information from customers. Check your bank’s web site – the privacy policy and ID theft prevention advice is often posted online.

James Oosterman is the Vice President of Melrose Bank. He can be reached by telephone 781-665-2500, online at or on Facebook at

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