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FDIC Consumer News - Summer 2018
25th Anniversary Edition

[2000] When a Criminal's Cover Is Your Identity: Minimizing the Risk of Identity Theft

Excerpted and updated from “When a Criminal's Cover Is Your Identity,” Summer 2000.

Your good name and reputation are among your most valuable assets. Unfortunately, criminals know the value of a good name and reputation, too. That's why increasing numbers of con artists are “stealing” identities. They typically start by using theft or deception to learn a person's Social Security number, date of birth or other personal information. Armed with those details, the perpetrators can open credit card accounts, make purchases, take out loans, or make counterfeit checks and ATM cards in your name. In effect, the crook becomes you to commit fraud or theft.

Federal and state laws plus banking industry practices may limit your losses from identity theft, also known as ID theft. Under the Truth in Lending Act, if a crook opened a credit card account in your name and ran up thousands of dollars in charges, the most you'd owe is $50—and many creditors will agree to excuse you of all liability. Still, innocent victims are likely to face long hours (and sometimes years) closing tarnished accounts and opening new ones, fixing credit records, and otherwise cleaning up the damage. They may even be denied loans, jobs and other opportunities because an identity theft ruined their reputation and credit rating.

Here are things you can do to minimize your risk of becoming a victim of ID theft:

Protect your Social Security number, credit card numbers, account passwords and other personal information. Never divulge this kind of information unless you initiate the contact with a person or company you know and trust. A con artist can use these details and a few more, such as your mother's maiden name, to withdraw money from your bank or order credit cards or checks in your name. If you get an unsolicited offer that sounds too good to be true and asks for bank account numbers and other personal information before you receive anything in return, this is probably a scam. Likewise, if a caller claims to represent your financial institution, the police department or some similar organization and asks you to "verify" (reveal) confidential information, hang up fast. Real bankers and government investigators don't make these kinds of calls.

Keep thieves from turning your trash into their cash.  Thieves known as “dumpster divers” pick through garbage looking for credit card applications and receipts, canceled checks, bank statements, expired charge cards and other documents or information they can use to counterfeit or order new checks or credit cards. Before putting these items in the garbage bin, tear them up as best you can. Any paper you don't need that contains private information should be shredded.

Pay attention to your bank account statements and credit card bills. Contact your financial institution immediately if there's a discrepancy in your records or if you notice something suspicious, such as a missing payment or an unauthorized withdrawal. While federal and state laws may limit your losses if you're victimized by a bank fraud or theft, sometimes your protections are stronger if you report the problem quickly and in writing.

Review one or more of your credit reports approximately once a year. Your credit reports (prepared by credit bureaus) will include identifying information such as your name, address, Social Security number and date of birth, as well as details about credit cards and loans in your name. Make sure each report you obtain is accurate, and that includes monitoring it for unauthorized bank accounts, credit cards and purchases. Under federal law, you can get at least one free report from each of the nationwide credit bureaus every 12 months. To order your free annual reports from the three major credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — visit or call toll-free 1-877-322-8228.

Don't let ID theft take on a life of its own — yours. If someone is using your personal information to cash in on your name, visit, the federal government’s one-stop resource to help people report and recover from ID theft.