(This is not going to be the kind of post you'd normally see from me, but I hope you read it, anyway. It might help you or someone you know.)
We were asleep in bed on Friday morning when my husband's cell phone rang.
You are almost guaranteed that any time you're asleep -- during normal sleeping hours, like before the sun has risen -- and your phone is ringing, it's going to be bad news. In my personal experience, at least half the time this happens it means someone has died or is about to die.
Thankfully, this time everyone was still alive, but the news was still rather rotten. The woman on the phone worked for a chain of jewelry stores. She said someone had attempted to open a credit account with them using my husband's information: His social security number, name, address, etc. The good news was that the thief had been denied credit. The bad news was that the reason he'd been denied credit was because this woman had noticed about a dozen applications for credit elsewhere on the same day, which is an indicator of identity theft.
Some credit accounts had been approved. Some had been denied. We've learned over the past few days that:
1) The crook has a DMV-issued ID card with my husband's name and address on it.
2) Not all stores require a credit check before they will issue a credit card. Nor do you need the card before you can begin spending money. At Target, for example, the thief maxed out his $500 limit last week. We received his credit card in the mail on Saturday, complete with my husband's name spelled incorrectly on it.
3) The three credit reporting agencies (TransUnion, Experian, and Equifax) are sadly not as up-to-date as you'd hope they'd be if you were a victim of identity theft and trying to figure out where a thief had applied for credit. There was a lot of information missing from the reports.
4) The thief is spending lots of money in Southern California.
5) Having your identity stolen is a huge pain in the ass and leaves you feeling scared and vulnerable.
Now, what you should know about my husband is that he is the most paranoid person I know. He always has been. He doesn't carry his social security card in his wallet. He doesn't hand out personal information to anyone without having a damn good reason for it. He won't leave outgoing mail on the mailbox and insists on taking it to the post office. He is like this about everything; diligent. Almost militant.
What I'm saying is: If identity theft can happen to him, it can happen to anyone. It can happen to you.
We have no idea how this happened, which makes it all the more frightening. What we suspect is that someone probably sold his information to someone else, or perhaps his information was stolen from some facility.
So what I want to do is tell you of a few ways you can protect yourself and at least limit the likelihood of this happening to you.
1) Use a credit card or cash for any and all purchases. If your ATM card gets skimmed, you're screwed. Thankfully, so far the thief has been unable to access our bank account. For extra protection, we created an additional verbal password that anyone calling the bank will need to provide in order to gain access.
2) Never give out your social security number. Agencies that have a right to demand your social security number are: The DMV, the welfare department, and the IRS. Your doctor has no right to ask for it. Your utility company has no right to ask for it. Your school has no right to ask for it. If they give you a hard time, give them your social security number, but put in two or three incorrect digits. If you're applying for credit, you will need to provide it because businesses use it to check your credit history.
3) Protect your driver's license with your life. Carry it in your wallet, in your zipped purse.
4) Request your free credit reports right now. Go to AnnualCreditReport.com or freecreditreport.com and just look at what the reports say about your credit. It takes only a few minutes. If there is a credit account that you don't recall having applied for or received, call the credit company and ask them for every detail. If it's ID theft, you will want to speak to their fraud department. They're normally very helpful. If you do find out your identity has been stolen, go to the FTC site for more information on what to do next.
5) File your taxes as soon as humanly possible. If someone has stolen your identity, they can use your information to get a job. If they do that, they're likely to file taxes early in order to obtain a tax refund. If you then file your taxes after that person, the IRS thinks you're the crook and needless to say, it's a huge clusterfuck you don't want to deal with.
6) Create as many safeguards as you can on your accounts. Many companies will allow you to require a phone call to you before any action can be taken on your account. Most will allow you to create a verbal password that only you know, and which must be given before anyone can do anything with your account.
7) Be careful with your mail. Don't leave outgoing mail with sensitive information on your mailbox. Collect your mail from your mailbox as soon as you can. Maybe even get a PO box so your mail isn't just a sitting duck all day while you're at work.
8) Be smart about the information you give out over the Internet. Only government and credit agencies need your SSN. Have crazy-hard passwords on sites that retain any of your personal information, and change them frequently.
All these things can help prevent your identity from being stolen, but not indefinitely. There's no stopping an immoral person who works for a government agency or a credit company from selling your information. There's no stopping a thief who's hell-bent on breaking into a locked drawer to get to this stuff.
So you just have to be diligent. Check your accounts every week, and check your credit reports every year (it's free), and try to have faith in human decency.