Identity Theft: Tips to Avoid it and Steps to Take if you Become a Victim
By Austin Milliren, Fort Bliss Legal Assistance Office
Identity theft involves fraud and related activity in connection with identification documents, authentication features, and information. It is typically thought of as when someone fraudulently uses your personal or financial information without your permission. This can be done in many ways including financial identity theft, criminal identify theft, tax identity theft, child identity theft, and medical identity theft.
Statistically, service members have a higher likelihood of becoming victims of identity theft. However, there are actions one can take and resources one can use to help avoid becoming a victim of identity theft. Perhaps the most important thing you can do is protecting your financial and personal information to make it harder for thieves to steal. This includes:
1) Keeping this information in a secure place.
2) Shredding documents that contain this information such as credit card statements, bank statements, ATM slips, and bills.
3) Not carrying your social security number or any passwords.
4) Not entering this information on unsecure websites.
5) Not giving out this information over the phone to unknown or unauthorized callers.
6) Using difficult passwords.
7) Requesting a credit report at least once a year.
Other good tips to avoid identity theft can be found at https://consumer.ftc.gov/articles/what-know-about-identity-theft#protect.
Additionally, free electronic credit monitoring and Active Duty Alert are resources that are available to active duty military for free. Free electronic credit monitoring will notify a service member if there are any material changes to their credit file. To sign up for this service, a service member must contact each of the three credit bureaus. If on deployment, Active Duty Alert will require creditors to take steps to verify their identify before granting credit in their name. It also takes their name off their marketing lists for prescreened credit offers during deployment. To sign up for this service, a service member only needs to contact the fraud department of one credit bureau, as they will be required to contact the other two bureaus. Generally, Active Duty Alert only lasts one year, but it can be renewed for the length of the service member’s deployment.
Some signs of identity theft include unauthorized purchases and withdrawals, bills from unrecognized accounts, missing statements or bills, activity from accounts you did not open on your credit report, denial of a credit card or loan you would normally be eligible to receive. Many other warning signs can be found at: https://www.identitytheft.gov/#/Warning-Signs-of-Identity-Theft.
If you believe this has happened to you, it is important to act fast. First, you should call the companies where you believe the fraud occurred. You should explain to them that your identity has been stolen and ask to freeze those accounts. Second, place a free fraud alert on your credit report by contacting one of the credit bureaus. This will make it more difficult for others to open new accounts in your name. Finally, make a report to the FTC on IdentityTheft.gov. This will create a personalized recovery plan that will outline the steps you need to take to recover from identity theft. For example, it will create an identity theft affidavit for you to prove to businesses that your identity was stolen. In addition, it will also create other customized pre-filled letters to send to businesses, credit bureaus, and debt collectors.
There are several federal laws that protect victims of identity theft. These laws allow victims certain rights relating to:
1) Documenting the theft.
2) Working with credit reporting companies.
3) Communicating with creditors and debt collectors.
4) Limiting financial losses resulting from identity theft.
With regards to documenting the theft, victims have a right to create an identity theft report. You can create this report by going to reportfraud.ftc.gov.
For rights relating to working with credit companies, victims may place a 90-day fraud alert on their credit report. You can do this by notifying one of the three credit reporting companies. You may also extend this fraud alert to seven years by providing an identity theft report to each credit reporting company. Additionally, victims can have credit reporting companies block fraudulent information from appearing on their credit report by sending the companies a copy of a valid identity theft report, proof of identity, and a letter identifying which information is fraudulent. Finally, victims may dispute information on their credit report, freeze their credit report, and get a free copy of their credit report.
For rights relating to communicating with creditors and debt collectors, victims have a right to stop them from reporting fraudulent accounts. You can do this by providing the creditor or debt collector with a copy of your identity theft report. Victims may also obtain copies of documents relating to their identity theft and obtain written information from a debt collector about a debt. You can obtain copies of documents by providing creditors or debt collectors with a copy of your police report and an identity theft affidavit. Finally, the victim may also stop a debt collector from contacting them by sending the debt collector a letter requesting to stop communications.
Victims have limited liability for fraudulent debts caused by identity theft. For example, with credit cards, a victim is only liable up to $50 for fraudulent purchases made on their credit card, so long as they report the fraudulent charges within 60 days. Similarly, victims are only liable up to $50 for misuse of a lost or stolen ATM or debit card so long as the victim notifies the bank within two business days after they realize the card is missing. For fraudulent withdrawals made on an ATM or debit card that is not lost or stolen, the victim is not liable if they write a letter to the bank within 60 days of when the bank sends the statement showing the fraudulent withdrawals. For more information on rights for identity theft victims, go to https://ovc.ojp.gov/sites/g/files/xyckuh226/files/media/document/idtrightsbooklet.pdf.
Here in Texas, victims also have rights under the Identity Theft Enforcement and Protection Act, which allows them the option of seeking a court order declaring that they are a victim of identity theft. If granted, it may be submitted to private businesses and to governmental entities to help correct any records that contain inaccurate or false information which resulted from the identity theft.
If you have more questions about this topic, please schedule an appointment to speak with an attorney at Fort Bliss Legal Assistance Office by either calling (915) 568-7141 during office hours or emailing email@example.com anytime.