Knowing the common ways ID theft happens—and the most proven ways to prevent it—can help you protect your assets.

Skilled identity thieves use a variety of methods to steal your personal information including dumpster diving, skimming, fishing, phishing and stealing. Dumpster diving is as simple as it sounds—shred your personal records before throwing away to prevent this. Skimming involves special storage devices installed at ATMs. Be on the lookout for obvious adhesives or unusual appearance of technology at an otherwise familiar ATM. Fishing is a combination of voice and phishing and involves social engineering over the telephone to gain access to private personal and financial information. Phishing involves those pretending to be financial institutions or other companies who send spam or pop-up messages to lure individuals into revealing personal information. Old-fashioned stealing involves direct theft of purses, wallets, bank and credit card statements, new checks, pre-approved cards, tax statements or personnel records.

How to protect yourself? Detect, inspect and defend. Detect suspicious activity by routinely monitoring your financial accounts, billing statements and other communication about finances. If something looks suspicious or unfamiliar, check into it. Inspect your financial statements each month when they arrive; also inspect your credit report on a regular basis. The law requires the major nationwide consumer reporting agencies to give you a free copy of your credit report each year if you ask for it. Visit annualcreditreport.com or call 1-877-322-8228. Finally, defend. If you see something in error, alert creditors. The three nationwide consumer reporting companies have toll-free numbers for placing an initial 90-day fraud alert; a call to one company is sufficient:

Placing a fraud alert entitles you to free copies of your credit reports. Look for inquiries from companies you haven't contacted, accounts you didn't open, and debts on your accounts that you can't account for.

Close accounts that may have been tampered with or were established fraudulently.

  • Call the security or fraud departments of each company where an account was opened or changed without your permission.
  • Follow up in writing, with copies of supporting documents.
  • Use the ID Theft Affidavit at ftc.gov/idtheft to support your written statement.
  • Ask for verification that the disputed account has been closed and the fraudulent debts discharged.
  • Keep copies of documents and records of your conversations about the theft.

File a police report. File a report with law enforcement officials to help you with creditors who may want proof of the crime.

Report the theft to the Federal Trade Commission. Your report helps law enforcement officials across the country in their investigations.

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