Thursday, May 25, 2006

Minimizing Your Risk: Veterans' groups provide some important tips on how to prevent identification theft

Minimizing Your Risk
Veterans' groups provide some important tips on how to prevent identification theft—and what to do if you suspect you've fallen victim.
By Jessica Bennett

May 24, 2006 - Research groups indicate that identity theft affected more than 9 million Americans last year. But despite those numbers, the revelation this week that the personal information of 26.5 million veterans had been stolen from the home of a Department of Veterans Affairs employee came as a shock. The information—mainly from veterans discharged since 1975—included the veterans' Social Security numbers, birthdates and, in some cases, a disability rating—a score of between 1 and 100 indicating how disabled a veteran is. NEWSWEEK spoke with USAA Worldwide Insurance, a veterans' insurance group, as well as the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for some tips on how to protect against ID theft, and what to do if you think you're a victim. Excerpts:

10 Tips to Prevent ID Theft
# Memorize your Social Security number. Never carry your Social Security card in your wallet or purse.
# Store your wallet or purse in a secure location while at work or public places such as fitness centers.
# Buy a cross-cut shredder. Use it as a secure means of disposal for documents with personal or financial information—such as unsolicited credit-card applications, credit receipts or utility bills.
# Memorize your PINs. Do not write them down unless you must. Never keep them with their cards, and do not share them with anyone. If possible, do not use the same PIN for multiple cards or services.
# Do not provide personal information over the phone, e-mail or Internet unless the recipient is a known and trusted source.
# Make sure the Web sites you use provide encryption technology to safeguard your information. Most Web sites provide some acknowledgement of this, which may appear as a yellow padlock symbol in the status bar of your browser or as a pop-up window indicating an encrypted or secured site.
# Call the credit reporting agencies at 888-5-OPTOUT to remove your name from all mailing lists the agencies supply to direct marketers.
# Deposit checks directly to your bank account. Do not mail checks from your home mailbox if it is unsecured.
# Do not have unnecessary personal information, such as Social Security or driver's license numbers, printed on personal checks.
# Do business with responsible companies that take steps to protect their customers from identity theft.

How to Detect ID Theft
If you are a victim of identity theft, you can minimize damage to your name, finances and credit history by detecting it early. To do so, you should begin taking the following steps immediately.
# Monitor financial statements: Carefully monitor every statement from your bank, credit-card company and other financial institutions. Review transactions carefully for unexplained charges or withdrawals, and dispute anything that looks suspicious. This is the most common way victims discover misuse of their identity.
# Review your credit report: Order your credit report from any of the three credit-reporting agencies at least once each year, and review it carefully. Make sure all personal information is correct, such as names, addresses and phone numbers. Make sure all listed accounts are yours. Check inquiries on your report to see if they look suspicious or seem excessive.
# Examine your mail: Scrutinize your mail for signs of identity theft. Have you received credit cards for which you did not apply? Are bills or bank account statements missing? Have you failed to receive new credit cards as expected when current cards are about to expire? Have you received letters from debt collectors or businesses about merchandise or services you did not purchase?

If You Fall Victim
If you've taken these actions and believe you are a victim of ID theft, follow these four steps, provided by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs:
# Contact the fraud department of one of the three major credit bureaus:
Equifax: 800-525-6285 (
Experian: 888-EXPERIAN (
TransUnion: 800-680-7289 (
# Close any accounts that have been tampered with or opened fraudulently.
# File a police report with your local police or the police in the community where the identity theft took place.

File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission by using the FTC's Identity Theft Hotline at 877-438-4338 or