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Identity Theft Frequently Asked Questions

Below are answers to some frequently asked questions (FAQs) pertaining to identity theft, data theft, and how to protect yourself.

  • What is the difference between Data Theft and Identity Theft?

    Data theft occurs when someone obtains key pieces of your personal identifying information. Identity theft occurs when that information is used for fraudulent or other unlawful purposes. The unlawful acquisition of personal identifying information does not necessarily mean that identity theft has occurred.

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  • How is identity theft different from financial fraud?

    The term “financial fraud” covers common credit card, check, and debit card fraud. When a criminal uses your credit cards or debit cards to make a purchase, he or she usually hasn’t assumed your identity. Recovering from financial fraud is relatively easy, since most creditors don’t hold you liable for fraudulent charges.

    “Identity theft”, on the other hand, is a crime wherein a criminal acquires and uses the victim’s personal information-- such as a Social Security or driver’s license number-- to take out loans, obtain new credit cards, rent an apartment, purchase a car, run up debt, file for bankruptcy, or commit other criminal activities in the victim's name. Identity theft can not only damage someone’s creditworthiness, it can also create unknown criminal records that can result in the identity theft victim being wrongly arrested or denied employment after a routine background check.

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  • How do I know if I have been a victim of identity theft?

    Your credit report will generally be how you find out about it. All three credit-reporting bureaus allow every individual one free credit report a year. There are also commercial services that can monitor your credit in real-time, though this is a paid service, of course. In any event, however you choose to do so, you should keep a close eye on your credit.

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  • Whom do I speak with at the credit bureau if I notice something unusual on my credit report?

    When you receive a copy of your report, there will be a phone number listed on the report that you can use to contact someone in the bureau's fraud unit. If you see anything on any of your reports that looks unusual or that you don't understand, call the number on the report.

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  • What is a "fraud alert"?

    A fraud alert is a statement that is placed on a credit bureau report that is intended to help consumers who have been a victim, or may have been a victim, of identity theft. A fraud alert is designed to stop an identity thief from using your personal information to open fraudulent credit accounts in your name.

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  • How long does a fraud alert last?

    An initial fraud alert lasts 90 days. You can remove an alert by calling the credit bureaus at the phone number given on your credit report. If you want to reinstate the alert, you can do so. If you are the victim of identity theft, you can place an Extended Fraud Victim Alert on your report by submitting a copy of a valid identity theft report that you have filed with a federal, state or local law enforcement agency. An Extended Alert will remain on your report for seven years.

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  • Will a fraud alert stop me from using my credit cards?

    No. A fraud alert will not stop you from using your existing credit cards or other accounts. It may slow down your ability to get new credit. Its purpose is to help protect you against an identity thief trying to open credit accounts in your name. Credit issuers get a special message alerting them to the possibility of fraud. Creditors know that they should re-verify the identity of the person applying for credit.

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  • Can I still apply for credit after I place a fraud alert on my credit report?

    You should still be able to get credit. While a fraud alert may slow down the application process, you can prove your identity to a prospective creditor by providing identifying information.

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  • If I suspect that my Social Security Number was misused, should I have it changed?

    The Social Security Administration very rarely changes a person's SSN. And the mere possibility of fraudulent use of your SSN would probably not be viewed as a justification. There are drawbacks to changing to a new SSN as well. The absence of any history under the new SSN might make it difficult to get credit, continue college, rent an apartment, open a bank account, get health insurance, etc. In most cases, getting a new SSN would not be a good idea.

    Additionally, many private groups that offer to change your SSN for a fee are actually scams themselves.

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  • What else can I do to limit the chances that I become an identity theft victim?

    As a general privacy-protection measure, limit the use of your SSN when it is not required. For example, if your bank or other financial account number or PIN is your SSN, you should request the financial institution to give you a different number. Don't use the last four digits of your SSN, your mother's maiden name, or your birth date as a password for online banking or financial transactions. Don't put your SSN on checks you write.

    Because your birthdate, mother's maiden name, etc, are used as identifying information in conjunction with your SSN, be careful with that information too. Don't post your birthdate or mother's maiden name on social media, and don't use that info for a "forgot password" question.

    Always review your credit card bills and debit card statements. If you spot purchases you did not authorize, contact the card-issuer immediately.

    Check your credit report at least once a year for unusual activity.

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  • Are there any other resources that can help me?

    Yes, these external links pertaining to identity theft and protection may be of interest.

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