How to Protect Yourself from Identity Theft
Authored By: Montana Legal Services Association (MLSA)
Identity theft is 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. Identity theft can ruin your credit for years.
You can protect yourself from identity theft. Be careful with whom you give your personal information to, like your date of birth or Social Security number. Legitimate businesses will not call or email you asking for your personal information. Contact the company directly using the telephone number or a website you know is legitimate. It is also a good idea review your credit report once a year to make sure nobody is using your information for loans, goods, or services.
If you think that someone may have stolen your identity, you can:
- Request a security freeze
- Request a fraud alert
- Visit https://www.identitytheft.gov/ to come up with a plan to help you recover
- File reports with the Montana Office of Consumer Protection and the Federal Trade Commission
- Seek legal help with any issues related to someone stealing your identity.
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. Identity theft can ruin your credit rating 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. Make sure you use both capital letters and at least one number or other symbol. 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 others from sharing your files with potential creditors. You will need to write each of the three credit bureaus. You can find a sample request letter 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 number or a website you know is legitimate.
○ 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.
○ 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 through www.annualcreditreport.com.
○ Read and understand privacy and security policies before giving out any personal information on Internet sites. Shop online only if the site is secure. A secure website will begin with https://. Some sites will have the lock icon, but that does not always mean that they are secure. Make sure the website begins 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 you to proactively “lock up” your credit information so no one can access it without your permission. This prevents a thief from using your information to establish new credit, like taking out a new mortgage, applying 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.
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.
How do I request a security freeze?
Write each of the three credit bureaus. You can find a sample request letter at www.dojmt.gov/consumer/consumer. Provide at least 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.
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
Check Your Credit Report
The law allows you to check your credit report once a year with each credit bureau. You can visit https://www.annualcreditreport.com/index.action to get your credit report for free.
Request a Security Freeze
You can find a sample Security Freeze request letter at www.dojmt.gov/consumer/consumer. You will need to send this letter to each of the three credit bureaus.
You can file a report with:
Make a Recovery Plan
Visit https://www.identitytheft.gov/ to come up with a plan to help you recover
Get Legal Help
Montana Legal Services Association provides civil legal help to eligible clients, at no charge. Learn more about how to apply for free legal help