Nearly everything seems to be computerized in this ever-advancing technological society of ours. Consequently, identity theft has become more and more of a problem in recent years. In response to this growing problem, laws on identity theft were tightened to a federal offense in 1998 under the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act. Identity theft is a crime that involves wrongfully obtaining someone else’s private personal information and using it fraudulently. It is most often committed for the purpose of economic gain. If they end up in the wrong hands, your bank account number, credit card information, passwords, and Social Security number can be used to wreak havoc on your assets, credit, and reputation.
The Identity Theft and Deterrence Act defines the Federal crime of identity theft as purposefully transferring or using any form of identification of another person without his or her consent, and having the intent to commit or assist in unlawful activity using that identification information. Accompanying the statute is a provision for a maximum sentence of a fine, a 15-year prison term, and repossession of the stolen personal property. You can find some examples of specific cases involving identity theft at http://www.justice.gov/criminal/fraud/websites/idtheft.html.
The statute also contains provisions for various types of fraud including computer, credit card, financial institution, mail, and wire fraud. Depending on the degree of the crimes committed under the victim’s name, violations may impose as much as 30 years in prison, hefty fines, and repossession of information and any materials or products that were obtained fraudulently. A suspected case of identity theft may be closely examined by Federal prosecutors, the FBI, the Secret Service, and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service in order to catch and properly prosecute the criminal in question.
Trying to pick up the pieces after suffering from identity theft is much more difficult than taking the extra precautions to protect your personal information in the first place. Correcting faulty information, restoring good credit, and attempting to win back your once flawless reputation can take several years and a lot of money out-of-pocket. And you may never get back all that you lost. There are a number of things that you can do to protect yourself from falling victim to identity theft.
First of all, be very grudging regarding when, where, and to whom you give out your personal information. Only give out your information on a need-to-know basis. Make sure you know exactly who you are giving it to and why. For example, your bank may have had you select and answer a “secret question” for added security measures. Be wary if someone calls you claiming to be from your back and inquiring about such personal account details. This sort of information would already be on file at your bank and no one from your bank or anywhere else should need to contact you for it. You should also avoid unknown callers that ask for your personal data in order to solicit major credit cards or prizes.
Secondly, be sure to check your financial data frequently for incorrect information, suspicious activity, or unauthorized charges. Those monthly statements from your banks and credit card companies that you may or may not pay any attention to are actually quite important. They are there to help you look over your account and ensure that everything is in order. You should also pay careful attention to your credit score and your detailed credit report. By law, you are entitled to a free annual credit check. The official source authorized by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for obtaining your free annual credit check can be found at http://www.annualcreditreport.com. Use this to your advantage. Stay up to date on your credit rather than waiting until there is a problem.
Also, hold onto your monthly records and statements sent out by all of your financial institutions for at least a year. Keep them in a secure place where they will be readily available to you should you need to dispute a transaction. When you go on vacation or leave your home for extended periods, have your postal service hold your mail until you return or ask a trusted neighbor, friend, or family member to pick it up for you. Criminals can easily intercept your mail and steal your information. It is made particularly easy if your mail keeps piling up and it is left unattended.
Regardless of the precautions taken, anyone can still fall victim to identity theft. If you have any reason to believe that your personal information has been compromised, you should contact the FTC immediately. The FTC is responsible for handling identity theft claims, directing them to the proper entities, and ensuring that you are protected by the laws on identity theft. Reporting suspicious activity at the first sign of trouble may help to interrupt further criminal activity and minimize damages.