How to Protect Yourself from Identity Theft


By: Montana Legal Services Association (MLSA)

Learn what identity theft is, how to protect your personal information, and what to do if you think you are the victim of identity theft.
Resource Information

What is Identity Theft?

Identity theft is when a person steals someone’s personal information (name, Social Security number, account number, or date of birth) to impersonate the victim and commit fraud or other crimes. 

Criminals use personal information for a variety of illegal purposes.  The ways they use the information is continually changing, in part because of electronic transactions.  Criminals can create unauthorized credit card transactions, forge checks from your bank account, or open new credit cards or new accounts.  They can hack into retirement or social security accounts.  So identity theft can result in a victim's loss of money from accounts, can create debt in the victim's name, and can ruin a victim's credit rating. 

How do I protect my personal information?

You should try to protect yourself from identity theft by protecting your personal information. Here are some ways to protect yourself: 

  • Never give personal, bank or credit card information over the phone unless you called them first and trust the business.  Criminals say they work for an agency or business that you might recognize to gain your trust.  The tactic is an imposter scam.  

    Know that governmental offices (like Internal Revenue Service, Social Security Administration) will only call you if you have contacted them first for a specific reason.  If any governmental agency, bank, or other business calls and asks for personal information or account information, you should:  

    1. Ask for their contact information.

    2. Get off the phone.

    3. Confirm the contact information by looking at a paper statement or researching online.  

    4. If you can verify the contact information, call them back.  

  • Never respond to pop-up messages on your phone (email or text) that ask you to confirm or verify account information, even if it looks official. Legitimate agencies or businesses do not ask for these types of information through email or text. Be suspicious of warnings that accounts, such as utility services, will shut down if you do not confirm your billing information. Contact the company directly using the telephone number or a website you know is legitimate. 

  • Pay attention to internet website addresses when shopping online.  Be careful before you give personal or account information.  To protect yourself from online sites that are used by criminals, pay attention to the website address.  Look specifically at the address; make sure the website begins with https://.  Some sites will have the lock icon, but that does not always mean that they are secure. Compare the address with the address on an official website of the business. 

  • Pay attention to internet email addresses when responding to emails.  Hover (hold your computer cursor) over the address of the sender of an email to determine whether a criminal is sending you an email to make you think you're hearing from a friend.  If in doubt, call the friend to confirm they sent the email.  This is true for businesses, as well.  Confirm the email address of the sender is the actual email address of the business.  Criminals make emails look valid when they are not, often there will be a slightly misspelled name or word in the email address. 

    Know that when a message urges you to act quickly, the intent is to have you act without thinking.  A legitimate agency or business will not require you to respond within a few hours. Additionally, a legitimate agency or business will not offer cash in return for your response. 

  • Remove extra information from your checks. You should not keep your Social Security number or date of birth on your checks. It is a good idea to be extra careful about this information.  

  • Review your bank and credit card statements.  Criminals often test cards with minimal charges before making much larger charges. If you see a suspicious charge, contact your bank or credit card company immediately. They may contact you first to issue a new card if they suspect suspicious activity. 

  • Order a copy of your credit report once a year and check it carefully for fake accounts or other incorrect information. You are entitled to a free credit report once every 12 months from the three major credit bureaus through https://www.annualcreditreport.com.  If there is any incorrect information, you should follow through by contacting the credit reporting agency in writing. 

  • Secure personal information in your home with a locking file cabinet or safe. 

  • Shred or destroy documents with personal information before you throw them away, including prescriptions, pay stubs, and insurance policies. 

  • Read news alerts to know more recent scams.  Because electronic transactions (done with phones and computers) are continually changing, it is a good idea to learn about ways criminals gain your personal or account information.  For example, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) continually notifies members of scams involving identity theft and other criminal behavior.  

What do I do if I suspect I am the victim of identity theft?

  • Contact your local police or sheriff's office to report the specific information you have regarding the situation; if you believe the situation possibly involves criminals out of Montana, contact the Federal Bureau of Investigation; consult information on the FBI website for contact information 

  • If the identity theft involves a particular account, contact the bank or credit card company to notify them of the situation; stop using the account until the bank or credit card company gives you guidance 

  • Contact the Montana Office of Consumer Protection online or call 800-481-6896 or 406-444-4500. 

  • Make a report to the Federal Trade Commission

  • Check your credit report and consider placing a freeze on your credit information with the three major credit bureaus (see below) 

  • Document all contacts you make regarding the situation, noting the date and person or office you contacted. Consider making contact in writing by letter or email; keep copies of all communications 

If you are the victim of identity theft, false or inaccurate information will show on your credit report.  You must manage your credit information by contacting the three credit reporting companies: 




You are entitled by law to get a credit report once a year for free.  Visit https://www.annualcreditreport.com to get a report from each of these agencies.  

You should also consider a Security Freeze, which restricts access to your credit information unless and until you give permission.  More information can be found on the Office of Consumer Protection website. 

You should consider a Fraud Alert, which is placed on your credit report to notify someone receiving the report that there may have been fraudulent activity associated with an account.  You can communicate with the 3 credit report companies listed above regarding this option.  It is not the same as a Security Freeze. 

Take Action

  • Protect your personal information when on the telephone and in writing

  • If you think you are the victim of identity theft: 

    • File a Report with law enforcement

    • Notify the bank or credit card company and find out their procedures for your identity theft circumstance 

    • Manage your credit report by contacting the 3 credit reporting companies listed above

    • Get additional information about a recovery plan from the Federal Trade Commission

Funding Statement

This article is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $334,757 with 75 percentage funding by ACL/HHS and $88,384 and 25 percentage funded by non-federal government source(s). The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.

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