Identity Theft Practice Center
Frequently Asked Questions about Identity Theft
Q: What is identity theft?
A: Identity theft, also known as identity fraud, is the misappropriation and use of a person's private data for improper purposes. Typical data stolen and used in identity theft includes Social Security numbers (SSNs), drivers license numbers, passports, taxpayer ID numbers, account numbers, PIN numbers, passwords and dates of birth. The thief may try to use the information to access the owner's accounts, to purchase merchandise, to obtain credit, to open new accounts, to secure employment, to enter into contracts or leases or to commit other crimes using the stolen identity.
Q: Who are typical identity thieves?
A: Information is usually stolen by people known to the victim and who have his or her trust, such as relatives, friends, neighbors, household employees, in-home contractors and work colleagues. Other common perpetrators of identity theft can be employees of entities that routinely access personal information, such as those working for banks, credit card companies, insurance companies and even retailers and restaurants that routinely process credit card information.
Q: What are some of the methods used by identity thieves to obtain private information?
A: The most common source of private information is still stolen or misplaced purses and wallets. Shoulder surfing is the act of observing someone write or type personal information in public, such as account numbers or PINs at ATMs. Dumpster diving is the act of stealing private information from discarded documents in trash or recycling bins, and unsecured mailboxes are also targets. Data may be misappropriated by employees of organizations holding personal information as part of doing business. Internet or database penetration is another source, among others.
Q: How can I detect if my identity has been stolen?
A: Consumers are advised to carefully monitor bills and bank statements for suspicious activity. If you suddenly stop receiving statements, contact the particular source immediately. Regularly review your credit reports to discover unauthorized activity on your behalf (the three main credit bureaus are Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian).
Q: What should I do if I am the victim of identity theft?
A: If you discover you have been victimized, alert law enforcement immediately. You should also contact the entities affected such as financial institutions and credit card companies to alert them and to close affected accounts. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) accepts online identity theft complaints at and makes the information available to domestic and international law enforcement. Request that a fraud alert be placed on your credit reports by contacting any one of the three main credit reporting agencies. An attorney can advise you about other legal remedies, such as possible lawsuits against identity thieves or third parties that did not keep your data private.
Q: What are some of the more serious possible consequences of identity theft?
A: Sometimes identity thieves are able to pilfer millions of dollars. Victims spend many hours and lots of money trying to secure their identities and accounts and to recover their good credit ratings, names and reputations. Some victims face serious emotional issues such as anxiety, paranoia and anger. Identity thieves may commit other crimes using their assumed identities. For example, victims of identity theft might find themselves the subject of an arrest warrant for a violent crime committed by the imposter. Other uses of stolen identity include immigration fraud and public benefits fraud.
Q: I own a business and handle personal information belonging to my customers and employees. What can I do to protect this information?
A: An attorney knowledgeable in privacy law, identity fraud and labor law can advise you about your legal obligations to protect this information, both as a commercial entity and as an employer. Reputable business consultants can assist you in setting up internal systems and protections. If your employees conduct business in public places, be sure they are carefully trained not to allow written or verbal release of information. Do thorough background checks on potential employees. Government agencies such as the FTC and nonprofit organizations can also provide helpful guidance.
Q: What can I do if fraudulent transactions are reflected on my credit reports?
A: The federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) lays out the procedures for making corrections to your credit reports. Upon proper notification, both the credit bureau and the reporting company have certain obligations to correct your records. Detailed information is available on the FTC's website or from an attorney.
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