An identity thief is someone who steals your checks, your Social Security number, or other personal identification, then uses your information to obtain credit in your name or to commit a crime.
Most identity thieves get your information by stealing a purse or wallet, or by stealing checks or credit card information out of your mail. In 2003 we experienced a rash of mail thefts. These thefts have included credit card checks, bank checks, and outgoing mail including personal checks. The thieves have used this information to steal over $100,000.
Follow these tips to prevent identity theft:
- Do not give your Social Security number, mother's maiden name or any account numbers to strangers who contact you, especially by telephone, Internet, or through the mail.
- Identity thieves sometimes pose as a business, bank, or government representatives to get you to reveal personal information. Legitimate financial or government organizations that do business with you already have this information and will not ask for it over the telephone.
- Pay attention to what time of the month your bills arrive. If your bills don't arrive on time, call the creditor to make sure an identity thief hasn't changed your billing address to keep you from discovering phony charges.
- Guard your mail against theft. Don't leave outgoing mail in your mailbox. Take it to a collection box or your local post office. Promptly remove incoming mail. If you are planning to be away from home, call the U.S. Postal Service at 800-275-8777 to request a vacation hold.
- Put passwords on your credit card, bank, and telephone accounts. Avoid using easily available information like your mother's name, your birth date, the last four digits of your Social Security Number, your phone number, or an easy series of numbers such as 1234.
- Don't carry your Social Security Card or number.
- Leave it in a secure place.
- Give the number out only when necessary.
- Use other types of identification when possible.
- Don't carry credit cards or ID cards you don't need.
- Tear or shred charge receipts, copies of credit applications, insurance forms, physician statements, bank checks, and statements, expired charge cards, and credit offers you get in the mail. Also, ask credit card companies to refrain from sending you checks.
- Inspect your credit report at least annually. You can order a copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit reporting agencies.
- Make sure your credit report is accurate. The law allows credit bureaus to charge up to $8.50 for a copy of your report. You can request a free copy if you have been denied credit following an application for credit if the denial was based on the information from the credit-reporting agency.
If You Are a Victim
Report the identity theft to the police or sheriff in the area where you live. Identity theft is a felony, and charges may be filed against the thief in the county where you live. Ask the law enforcement agency to file a report and give you a copy as you will need this to help correct your credit rating.
Report the identity theft to your financial institution and other creditors. They may advise you to close your accounts and start over with new ones. Ask your financial institution what procedures they require of victims whose credit cards or checks have been stolen or forged.
Order Correcting Public Records
Tell the prosecuting attorney that if the person who stole your identity is found guilty, you'd like the court to issue you an Order Correcting Public Records. This is a court order you can use to correct public records damaged by identity theft. You may also want to send copies of the Order Correcting Public Records to your financial institution and creditors to assist you with correcting non-public records maintained by them.
Send a copy of the police report to the three credit-reporting agencies listed. The credit bureaus are required to block information victims identify as resulting from identity theft. Once these credit-reporting agencies receive the police report and a request from you, they are required to block any adverse information resulting from the identity theft from your credit report.
Ask businesses to provide you with information about transactions made in your name. Under the new law, businesses must give you this information but may require proof of your identification including a copy of the police report and a statement from the Washington State Patrol that your fingerprints are on file.
If you need to obtain your fingerprints for this purpose, the Washington State Patrol provides this service. You will pay a fee and be given a document indicating that your fingerprints are on file. You may then forward this document to the business that requested them. Businesses refusing to provide information to you may be subject to actual damages, plus a $1,000 penalty for willful violations.
Collection Agency Disputes
If the identity thief has stolen your checks or made counterfeit checks and then used those checks to make purchases or pay bills, you will probably be contacted by collection agencies that want you to pay the debts. Explain to each collection agency in writing that you have been the victim of identity theft.
You will need to provide the following information:
- A certified copy of a police report
- A copy of a government-issued photo identification issued prior to the alleged identity theft
- Information regarding the relevant financial institutions, account numbers, check numbers
- A statement that the subject debt is being disputed because of an identity theft
- A written statement describing the nature of the fraud or identity theft
Protection Against Misused Checks
Once a collection agency has been notified that the debt is a result of an identity theft, the collection agency may not continue to call you. This prevents victims from being inundated with calls for every misused check if they have had a box or book of checks stolen or forged.
Although calls might stop, you may still be subject to legal action by collection agencies. However, there are limits on what a collection agency can do to try to collect a debt from you. For more information about debt collection, please see the Washington Attorney Generals website or call the consumer line at 800-551-4636.