A new federal law enacted in February 2008 increased the penalties for perpetrators of identity theft from five to 15 years in prison, yet the increased penalties barely made a dent in identity theft crime.
Identity theft has become big business for those who aim to make a buck by stealing the identities of their victims.
Identity theft occurs when someone takes information such as Social Security identification, a driver's license number or a credit card, and uses it for his or her own personal gain. Nationally, an estimated 7 million consumers become victims of identity theft each year.
But there are steps you can take to help safeguard your personal information.
When you shop, take only one credit card and a photo I.D. with you. Leave your other cards and checkbook in a safe place at home. Always be on the alert for pickpockets, especially if you're in a crowded area. Carefully examine your credit card statement each month to ensure that all the charges were ones you made.
If you suspect that someone has stolen your personal information and is using it to commit fraud or theft, there are the basic steps you should take:
- Contact the fraud departments of the major credit bureaus. Tell them that you believe you're a victim of identity theft and request that a "fraud alert" be placed in your file, as well as a statement asking that creditors call you before opening any new charge accounts.
- You should also write to your credit bureaus and ask them for copies of your reports. Review them to make sure that no new accounts have been opened in your name. You should also check the section of your report that lists "inquiries." If any "inquiries" appear from the entity that opened the account, you can request that these be removed from your report. After a few months, order a copy of your report to ensure that no new fraudulent activity has taken place.
- Contact any creditors where the identity thieves opened or tampered with your accounts. Your creditors may run the gamut from credit card companies to utilities to banks and lenders. According to the law, consumers must notify their credit card companies in writing about the theft. It is important to immediately close the account under your name and open a new one with a personal identification number (PIN) and password.
- File a report with the local police. Follow up by getting a copy of the police report in case a creditor needs proof of the crime.
- File a report with the Illinois Attorney General's office. Their website is www.illinoisattorneygeneral.gov, or you can call them at 1-866-999-5630.