How to Protect Yourself from Identity Theft
Authored By: Montana Legal Services Association (MLSA)
What is identity theft?
Identity theft occurs when a person steals someone’s personal information – like a name, Social Security number, account number or date of birth– in order to impersonate that person and commit fraud or other crimes.
Why is identity theft a problem?
Criminals can use your personal information to take out loans and pay for goods and services in your name – leaving you to pay for the costs. 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 your retirement or social security accounts. Your credit rating can be ruined for years.
How do I protect my personal information?
○ Place passwords on your credit card, bank, and phone accounts. Use strong passwords that are more than eight characters in length and contain both capital letters and at least one numeric or other non-alphabetical character. Do not use the same password for different accounts. Change your passwords at least once every 90 days.
○ Freeze your credit files with the three major credit bureaus so no one can access them without your permission. A security freeze helps avoid identity theft and prevents your files from being shared with potential creditors. You can write each of the three credit bureaus, and a sample request letter can be found at www.dojmt.gov/consumer/consumer.
○ Never give personal, bank or credit card information over the phone unless you called them first and trust the business.
○ Never respond to e-mail or pop-up messages that ask you to confirm or verify account information, even if it looks official. Legitimate businesses do not ask for these types of information through e-mail. Be suspicious of warnings that accounts will shut down if you do not confirm your billing information. Contact the company directly using the telephone or a website you know is legitimate.
○ Remove extra information from your checks. Information like your Social Security number and date of birth should be guarded.
○ Secure personal information in your home with a locking file cabinet or safe.
○ Opt out of pre-printed credit card offers in the mail by calling (888) 5-OPTOUT (567-8688). This will not prevent you from getting a loan or credit card.
○ Review your bank and credit card statements. Scammers often test cards with minimal charges before making much larger charges. If you see a suspicious charge, contact your bank immediately. The bank 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. You are entitled to a free credit report once every 12 months from the three major credit bureaus. www.annualcreditreport.com
○ Read and understand privacy and security policies before providing any personal information on Internet sites. Shop online only if the site is secure. A secure website will begin with “https://”
○ Shred or destroy documents with personal information before you throw them away. Always shred prescriptions, receipts, bank deposit slips, pay stubs, expired credit cards, and insurance policies.
What is a security freeze?
A security freeze is one of the most effective ways to prevent identity theft. A security freeze allows consumers to proactively “lock up” their credit information so no one can access it without your permission. This prevents a thief from falsely using your information to establish new credit such as to take out a new mortgage, apply for a credit card, or get financing. A security freeze will not lower your credit score or prevent you from getting a copy of your own credit report. A security freeze will protect your credit information from third parties.
How do I request a security freeze?
Write each of the three credit bureaus. A sample request letter can be found at www.dojmt.gov/consumer/consumer. Provide at a minimum your name, address, Social Security number, and the $3 fee unless you are an identity theft victim. If you are a victim, provide a copy of the police report of identity theft. Send separate letters to each of the three credit card bureaus.
Each credit bureau will send you a written notice that the freeze is in place within five days of it going into effect. The confirmation will include a Personal Identification Number (PIN) and instructions on how to lift or remove the freeze.
What is a Fraud Alert?
People who suspect they may be an identity theft victim can have a special message called a fraud alert placed on their credit reports. It tells credit issuers there may be fraudulent activity on the account.
A fraud alert is not the same as a security freeze. While a fraud alert may slow down issuing new credit, it does not stop it. A security freeze will stop someone else from getting new credit in your name.
What do I do if I suspect identity theft?
Contact the Montana Office of Consumer Protection at https://dojmt.gov/consumer/ or call 800-481-6896 or 406-444-4500
Make a report to the Federal Trade Commission: https://www.ftc.gov/
Check your credit report and freeze your credit with the three major credit bureaus:
P.O. Box 740241,
Atlanta, GA 30374-0241
P.O. Box 9532
Allen, TX 75013
P.O. Box 2000
Chester, PA 19022-2000
How do I get more help?
Montana Legal Services Association (MLSA) provides free civil legal help to low-income people. Contact us to see if you qualify:
• Apply anytime online at mtlsa.org;
• Call our Helpline at 1-800-666-6899 (Helpline hours are limited).
What help can I find at MLSA?
• Legal advice and representation;
• Referrals to volunteer attorneys and other providers;
• Self-help clinics and materials.