By: Margaret A. Lourdes, Esq.

The Federal Trade Commission estimates each year 9 million Americans fall victim to identity theft. Identity theft is perpetrated when someone fraudulently uses another party’s personal information for criminal, financial gain. Identity thieves can drain bank accounts, max out credit cards, and severely damage credit scores.

According to the FTC (Federal Trade Commission), the most common form of identity theft is credit card fraud.

Identity thieves also have high rates of success with phone and utility fraud, which includes opening service accounts in victims’ names. The FTC states that bank account fraud rounds out the top three identity theft crimes. Internet identify theft accounts for roughly 205,000 yearly crimes, costing each victim approximately $1,400. However, contrary to popular belief, offline, not online, identify theft still comprises the lion share of identity crimes.

According to the National Crime Prevention Counsel, you can reduce your chances of being victimized by identity thieves by taking these simple precautions:

•   Keep your eye out for a slowdown in your mail, or missing items you expect to receive. Identity thieves are notorious for filing fake change of address forms to re-route items such as bank statements, credit card bills, paychecks, and other sources of personal data sent by mail.

•   Mail your bills, and other documents with sensitive information, directly from a postal office. Identity thieves gather treasure troves of personal identification by stealing outgoing mail placed at peoples’ curbside mailboxes.

• Avoid writing information such as your driver’s license number, social security number, address, and phone number on your paper checks. Identity thieves can intercept the information and use it to open fraudulent credit lines in your name.

• Shred your old mail, plastic credit cards, bank account information, and any other items that contain personal data. Identity thieves frequently get down and dirty by dumpster diving for personal information you dispose of in the trash.

• Never provide personal information over the Internet unless you verify the sender is legitimate. Identity thieves regularly pose as banks, credit card companies, and government officials, such as IRS agents, legislators, and law enforcement, in efforts to dupe you into providing secured information. Remember, unsolicited e-mails requesting your personal information are likely scams.

• Be on the lookout for people eyeing you up in public, or snapping nearby cell phone photos. “Shoulder surfing” is a simple technique by where identify thieves eavesdrop or sneak peeks at your personal information, such as credit card numbers, while you are transacting business in public.

If you do get caught in the snare of an identity thief, immediately report it to your local police station. Furthermore, don’t delay in contacting your credit card company, bank, utility, and phone company so they can close out comprised accounts. Moreover, alert one of the three major credit rating agencies: Equifax, TransUnion, or Experian. The agency you choose to notify will flag your name so you must be personally contacted before any new credit lines are opened. The agency will also inform the other two credit reporting agencies about the identity theft so they can do the same.