IDENTITY THEFT: Tips to Prevent it from Happening and What to Do if it Happens to You

December 14th, 2013

Written for the National Association of Professional Women
Springfield, Mo Local Chapter in Legal Corner Monthly Spotlight

By: Heather Rooney McBride and Danielle R. Kerckhoff

Over 40 million credit and debit card consumers were affected by the Target security breach that occurred between November 27th and December 15th of 2013. The information compromised included customers’ names, card numbers, and card expiration dates. The fraudsters are also obtaining personal credit information by sending emails that claim to be from Target or the victim’s bank. This large security breach reminds all consumers of the very real threat of identity theft. What can you do to protect yourself against such threats and what should you do if you become a victim?

The Bureau of Justice Statistics defines identify theft as the unauthorized use or attempted use of an existing account, the unauthorized use or attempted use of personal information to open a new account, or the misuse of personal information for a fraudulent purpose. Erika Harrell and Lynn Langton, Victims of Identity Theft, 2012, U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs, at 1 (Dec. 2013), available at http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/vit12.pdf. In 2012, an estimated 16.6 million people, or 7 percent of persons over the age of 16, in the United States were victims of identity theft. Id. at 6. Signs that you may be a victim of identity theft include unexplained charges on your bank account or credit card, unfamiliar accounts on your credit report, and receiving bills for services you did not use.

The best defense against identity theft is to take affirmative steps to protect your personal information. These steps include shredding sensitive documents, changing passwords for online accounts every few months, and monitoring your bank statements and credit reports. You can obtain a free copy of your credit report once a year from each of the three credit reporting agencies: Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax. Visit www.annualcreditreport.com or call 1-877-322-8228 to obtain a copy of your credit report. To monitor your credit report for free throughout the year, stagger your report requests. For example, obtain your report from Experian in January, from TransUnion in April, and Equifax in August.

If you notice any suspicious activity on your bank or credit card statements, immediately contact your bank or credit card company. If you report your card stolen within two business days after you learn of the theft, your maximum liability is $50. Electronic Fund Transfer Act § 909, 15 U.S.C. 1601 (1980). If you report your card stolen after two business days, but before sixty calendar days, your maximum liability is $500. Id. Most major credit card copies, however, provide a $0 liability for their customers. You can also place a fraud alert on your credit file to potentially thwart any additional fraud on your credit. Fair Credit Reporting Act § 605A, 15 U.S.C. 1681 (2003).

Although identity theft is a real and serious threat, forty-nine percent (49%) of identity theft victims experienced an out-of-pocket cost of less than one hundred dollars ($100). Victims of Identity Theft at 7. The majority of identity theft victims spent under one day resolving the problem, and ninety percent (90%) spent under a month resolving the problem. Id. at 10. Nevertheless, failure to take the matter seriously can result in serious financial injury.

The Missouri Attorney General’s Office has created a free hotline for Missouri residents who have questions about identity theft or want to report a suspected identity theft. The hotline can also advise victims of identity theft. The number is 800-392-8222. Be diligent about checking your financial information and utilizing the tools available to ensure your identity is not stolen.

The choice of an attorney is an important decision that should not be taken lightly. Nothing contained in this Article is intended to be nor should it be construed as legal advice and should not be independently relied upon for any purpose whatsoever.

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