What is identity theft and how can I protect my identity from being stolen?

Identity theft occurs when someone uses your personal information, such as name, address, Social Security Number, or credit card account number, without your knowledge and with the intent to commit a crime, usually fraud. Identity thieves use different methods to obtain access to your personal information. For example, identity thieves may get your personal information from businesses by stealing records or hacking into computer systems. Identity thieves can also gain access to your private information by rummaging through trash, stealing wallets, stealing mail, or posing as legitimate government and business officials. 

It is important for seniors to protect themselves from this growing crime, because identity thieves can wreak havoc on a victim’s financial status. Once identity thieves gain access to private information, they can go on spending sprees with credit cards, take out loans, and drain bank accounts. To protect yourself from identity theft never give out personal information over the telephone, through the mail, or over the Internet unless you initiated the contact. Furthermore, be especially careful if you carry your Social Security card with you. Secure your personal information even inside your home, especially if you have roommates or employ outside help. Guard your mail and trash from theft by shredding papers that contain identifying information and account numbers before discarding them. 

In the event that your identity is stolen, act quickly. If your bank or credit accounts have been compromised, consider closing the accounts immediately to prevent further loss. If your Social Security number has been stolen, you can place a fraud alert on your credit report by contacting one of the three major credit reporting agencies. (See also the question on Credit Reports, p. 132) If any other item has been stolen, such as your drivers license, contact the issuing agency immediately. According to the Federal Trade Commission, you need not file an identity theft report with the police until your information is actually misused. However, if another crime was committed to gain access to your personal information contact local police both for investigation and to establish a record you may need later. 

For more information see: Federal Trade Commission, Deter, Detect, Defend, Avoid ID Theft, http://www.consumer.ftc.gov/features/feature-0014-identity-theft (last visited June 9, 2015); 18 U.S.C. § 1028(a)(7) (2015).