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Identity Theft


CONSUMER LAW

IDENTITY THEFT

 

WESTERN MICHIGAN LEGAL SERVICES

89 Ionia, NW, Suite 400

GRAND RAPIDS, MICHIGAN  49503

 

616-774-0672

1-800-442-2777

This brochure is intended only to provide general information.  If you have more complicated questions or need more specific advice, please consult a lawyer.

What is an Identity Thief?

 

An identity thief takes your personal information and uses it without your knowledge to commit fraud or theft. For example, an identity thief may use your personal information to open a credit card account in your name.

 

How Does Identity Theft Occur?

 

Skilled identity thieves use a variety of methods, low and hi-tech, to gain access to your data.  Some common ways include:

         -stealing your wallet or purse

         -stealing your mail

         -completing a “change of address” form to get your mail

         -rummaging through the trash

         -accessing personal information you shared on the internet

 

How Can I Prevent Identity Theft?

 

While you probably can't prevent identity theft entirely, you can minimize your risk by manag­ing your personal information carefully:

 

· Before you reveal any person­al information, find out how it will be used and whether it will be shared with others. Ask if you can choose to keep your information confidential.  (For more information about how to protect your personal information, you can contact credit bureaus, state Departments of Motor Vehicles and direct marketers.)

 

· Pay attention to your billing cycles and contact your credi­tors if your bills don't arrive on time. A missing credit card bill could mean an identity thief has taken over your credit card account and changed your billing address to cover his tracks.

 

· Guard your mail from theft.  Deposit outgoing mail in post office collection boxes or at your local post office. Promptly remove mail from your mailbox after it has been delivered.

 

· Put passwords on your credit card, bank and phone ac­counts.  Don’t use easily available information like your mother's maiden name, your birth date, the last four digits of your Social Security number or phone number, or a series of consecutive numbers.

 

· Only carry the identification and cards that you actually need.

 

· Do not give out personal information on the phone, through the mail or over the Internet unless you initiated the contact or know who you're dealing with. Identity thieves may pose as representatives of banks, Internet service providers and even government agencies to get you to reveal your Social Security number, mother's maiden name, financial account numbers and other identifying information. Legitimate organizations have the information they need and will not ask you for it.

 

· Keep items with personal information in a safe place. Identity thieves may pick through your trash for personal information, so be sure to tear or shred your charge receipts, copies of credit applications, insurance forms, bank checks and statements that you are discarding, expired charge cards and credit offers you get in the mail before throwing them into the trash.  (To opt out of receiving prescreened credit card offers, call: 1-888-5-OPTOUT {1-888-567-8688}.  The three major credit bureaus use the same toll-free number to let consumers choose not to receive pre-screened credit offers.)

 

· Be cautious about where you leave personal information in your home, especially if you have roommates, employ outside help or are having service work done in your home.

 

· Find out who has access to your personal information at work and verify that the records are kept in a secure location.

 

· Give your Social Security number only when absolutely necessary. Ask to give other identifying information when possible. 

 

· Don't carry your Social Security card; keep it in a secure place.

 

· Order a copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit reporting agen­cies every year. Make sure it is accurate and includes only activities you've autho­rized. The law allows credit bureaus to charge you up to $8.50 for a copy of your credit report.

 

What If I’m a Victim of identity theft?

 

If you suspect that your personal information has been hijacked and misappro­priated to commit fraud or theft, take action immediately.  Keep a record of your conversa­tions and keep copies of any letters you send or receive.  Exactly which steps you should take to protect yourself depends on your circumstances and how your identity has been misused. However, the following actions are appropriate in almost every case:

 

·        First, contact the fraud depart­ments of each of the three major credit

   bureaus.

 

Tell them that you're a victim of identity theft. Request that a “fraud alert" be placed in your file, as well as a victim's statement asking that creditors call you before opening any new accounts or changing existing accounts. This can help prevent an identity thief from opening additional accounts in your name.

 

At the same time, order copies of your credit reports from the credit bureaus. If your credit report is inaccurate because of fraud, and you request a copy of the report in writing, credit bureaus must give you a free copy of the report. Review your reports carefully to make sure no addi­tional fraudulent accounts have been opened in your name or unauthorized changes made to your existing accounts. Also, check the section of your report that lists “inquiries." Where "inquiries" appear from the company(ies) that opened the fraudulent account(s), request that these "inquiries" be removed from your report. In a few months, order new copies of your reports to verify your corrections and changes have been made, and to make sure no new fraudulent activity has occurred.

 

·        Second, contact the credi­tors for any accounts that were tampered with or opened fraudulently. 

 

Ask to speak with someone in the security or fraud department of each creditor, and follow up with a letter. It's particularly impor­tant to notify credit card compa­nies in writing because it is part of the consumer protection laws’ procedure for resolving errors on credit card billing statements. Immediately close accounts that have been tampered with and open new ones with new Personal Identification Numbers (PINs) and passwords. Once again, don’t use easily avail­able information like your mother's maiden name, your birth date, the last four digits of your Social Security number or your phone number, or a series of consecutive num­bers.

 

·        Third, file a report with your local police or the police in the community where the identity theft took place.

 

Get a copy of the police report in case your creditors need proof of the crime. Even if the police can't catch the identity thief, having a copy of the police report can help you when dealing with creditors.

 

·        Fourth, contact the Federal Trade Commission.

 

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) collects complaints about identity theft from consumers.  Although the FTC doesn’t have the authority to bring criminal cases, the Commission can help victims of identity theft by providing information to assist them in resolving the financial and other problems that can result from this crime.  The FTC also refers victim complaints to other appropriate government agencies and private organizations for further action. 

 

To file a complaint with the FTC: call the Identity Theft Hotline toll-free at l-877-IDTHFFT (438-4338); TDD 1-202-326-2502; write Identity Theft Clearinghouse, Federal Trade Commission, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20580; or fill out the form at www.consumer.gov/idtheft.  The FTC then puts your information into a secure con­sumer fraud database and may, in appropriate instances, share it with other law enforcement agencies and private entities, including any companies about which you may complain. 

 

·        Fifth, address the method used to steal your identity. 

 

Ø     Stolen mail.  It is a crime for identity thieves to try to get your personal information by stealing your mail or falsifying change-of-address forms.  Report these crimes to the local postal inspector. Contact your local post office for the phone number of the nearest postal inspection service office or check the Postal Service web site at www.usps.gov/websites/depart/inspect. 

 

Ø     Change of address on credit card accounts.  If you dis­cover that an identity thief has changed the billing address on an existing credit card ac­count, close the account. When you open a new ac­count, establish a password to be given before any inquiries or changes are made on the account. Once again, don’t use easily available information like your mother's maiden name, your birth date, the last four digits of your social security number or your phone number, or a series of consecutive numbers.  Don’t use the same information and numbers when you create a PIN.

 

Ø     Bank accounts.  If you have reason to believe that an identity thief has tampered with your bank accounts, checks, or ATM card, close the accounts immediately. When you open new accounts, insist on password-only access to minimize the chance of an identity thief violating the accounts.

 

In addition, if your checks have been stolen or misused, stop payment. Also, ask your bank to notify the check verification service with which it does business or, contact the following major check verification companies yourself and request that they notify retailers using their databases not to accept these checks.

Telecheck: 1-800-710-9898

International CheckServices: 1-800-631-9656

Equifax: 1-800-437-5120

National Check Fraud Service: 1-843-571-2143

SCAN: 1-800-262-7771

CrossCheck: 1-707-586-0551

 

While no federal law limits your losses if someone steals your checks and forges your signature, state laws protect you. Most states hold the bank responsible for losses from a forged check. At the same time, however, most states require you to take reasonable care of your account. For example, you may be held responsible for the forgery if you fail to notify the bank in a timely manner that a check was lost or stolen. Contact your state banking or consumer protection agency for more information.

 

If your ATM card has been lost, stolen or otherwise compromised, cancel the card as soon as possible and get another with a new PIN.

 

Ø     Phone service. If an identity thief has phone service in your name, is making unauthorized calls that seem to come from, and are billed to, your cellular phone, or is using your calling card and PIN, contact your phone company immediately to cancel the account and/or calling card. Open new accounts and choose new PINs.

 

If you are having trouble getting fraudulent phone charges removed from your account, contact your state Public Utility Commission for local service providers or the Federal Communications Commission for long-distance service providers and cellular providers at 1-888-CALL-FCC (225-5922).

 

Ø     Employment. It’s a crime for someone to use your Social Security number to apply for a job or to work. Report it to the Social Security Administration's (SSA) Fraud Hotline at 1-800-269-0271. Also call the SSA at 1-­800-772-1213 to verify the accuracy of the earnings reported on your Social Security number, and to request a copy of your Social Security Statement. Follow up your calls with a written request.

 

Ø     Driver's license. If you suspect that your name or Social Security number is being used by an identity thief to get a driver's license or a non-driver's ID card, contact the Department of Motor Vehicles.

 

Ø     Bankruptcy.  If someone has filed for bank­ruptcy using your name, write to the U.S. Trustee in the Region where the bankruptcy was filed. A listing of the regions can be found at www.usdoj.gov/ust, or look in the Blue Pages of the phone book under U.S. Gov­ernment - Bankruptcy Admin­istration.

 

Your letter should describe the situation and provide proof of your identity.  If you provide appropriate documentation to substantiate your claim, the U.S. Trustee will refer the case to criminal law enforcement authorities. You also may want to file a complaint with the U.S. Attorney and/or the FBI in the city where the bankruptcy was filed.

 

Ø     Criminal records/arrests. In rare instances, an identity thief may create a criminal record under your name. For ex­ample, your imposter may give your name when being arrested. If this happens to you, you may need to hire an attorney to help resolve the problem. The procedures for clearing your name vary by jurisdiction.

 

How Do I Resolve Credit Problems?

 

There are federal laws that establish procedures for correcting credit report errors and billing errors, and for stopping debt collectors from contacting you about debts you don't owe. 

 

·        Credit Reports

 

The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) requires that your record be made available only for certain legitimate business needs and also establishes procedures for correcting mistakes on your credit record.  Under the FCRA, both the credit bureau and the organiza­tion that provided the informa­tion to the credit bureau, such as a bank or credit card company are responsible for correcting inaccurate or incomplete infor­mation in your report. To protect your rights under the law, con­tact both the credit bureau and the information provider.

 

Ø     First, call the credit bureau and follow up in writing.

 

Tell the credit bureau your complete name, your address and what information you believe is inaccurate.  Include copies (NOT originals) of documents that support your position. (A police report establishing that you are a victim of identity theft may be particularly useful).  Clearly identify each item in the credit report that you dispute; provide any relevant facts and explain why you dispute the information; and request that the bureau delete or correct the report. (See Example A below for a sample letter). You may want to enclose a copy of your report with circles around the items in question.  Send your letter by certified mail, and request a return receipt so you can document what the credit bureau received and when. Keep copies of your dispute letter and enclosures.

 

Credit bureaus must investi­gate the items in question, and usually within 30 days, unless they consider your dispute frivolous. They also must forward all of the relevant data you provide about the dispute to the informa­tion provider. After the informa­tion provider receives notice of the dispute from the credit bureau, it must review the information provided by the credit bureau, investigate the dispute and report the results to the credit bureau. If the information provider finds its information is inaccurate, it must notify the nationwide credit bureaus that it reports to so that they can correct the informa­tion in your file.

 

Note that:

     · Disputed information that cannot be verified must be deleted from your file.          

     · If your report contains inaccurate information, the credit bureau must correct it.

     · The credit bureau must update any incomplete information.  For example, the record shows that you are delinquent, but you have recently brought your payments up-to-date.  The credit bureau must add the recent information to its report.

     · The credit bureau must delete accounts that do not belong to you from your file.

 

The credit bureau must give you the written results of its investigation and a free copy of your report, if the dispute resulted in a change. At your request, the credit bureau must also send notices of corrections to anyone who received your report in the past six months. Job applicants can have a corrected copy of their report sent to anyone who received a copy during the past two years for employment purposes.

 

If an item is changed or removed, the credit bureau cannot put the disputed information back into your file unless the information provider verifies its accuracy and completeness, and the credit bureau gives you a written notice that includes the name, address and phone number of the information provider.

 

If an investigation does not resolve your dispute, ask the credit bureau to include your statement of the dispute in your file and in future reports.

 

Ø     Second, tell the information provider in writing that you dispute an item.

 

Many information providers specify an address for disputes. Be sure to write to the correct address and, once again, include copies (NOT originals) of documents that support your position. (Once again, a copy of a police report may be helpful if you are a victim of identity theft).  If the information provider then reports the item in question to a credit bureau, it must include a notice of your dispute. In addition, if the disputed informa­tion is not accurate, the infor­mation provider may not use it again.

 

Ø     Example A – Sample Dispute Letter to a Credit Bureau

 

Date

 

Your Name and Address

 

Name and Address of Credit Bureau

 

Dear Sir or Madam: 

 

I am writing to dispute the following information in my file.  The items I dispute also are circled on the attached copy of the report I received.  (Identify item(s) disputed by name of source, such as creditors or tax court, and identify type of item, such as credit account, judgment, etc.)

 

This item is (inaccurate or incomplete) because (describe what is inaccurate or incomplete and why).  I am requesting that the item be deleted (or request another specific change) to correct the information.

 

Enclosed are copies of (use this sentence if applicable and describe any enclosed documentation, such as payment records, or court documents) supporting my position.  Please investigate this (these) matter(s) and (delete or correct) the disputed item(s) as soon as possible.

 

Sincerely,

Your name

 

Enclosures:  (List what you are enclosing)

 

·        Credit Cards

 

In most case, the Truth in Lending Act limits your liability for unauthorized credit card charges to $50 per card. The Fair Credit Billing Act establishes proce­dures for resolving billing errors, including fraudulent charges, on your credit card accounts. 

 

To take advantage of the law's consumer protections, you must:

 

Ø     Write to the creditor at the address given for “billing inquiries.” (Not the address

for sending your payments.) Include your name, address, account number and a descrip­tion of the billing error, includ­ing the amount and date of the error. Include copies (NOT originals) of sales slips or other documents that support your position.

 

Ø     Make sure your letter reaches the creditor within 60 days after the first bill

contain­ing the error was mailed to you. If you never received the bill because the address on your account was changed by an identity thief, your dispute letter still must reach the creditor within 60 days of when the creditor would have mailed the bill to you. (This is why it's so important to keep track of your billing statements and immediately follow up when your bills don't arrive on time!)

 

Ø     Send your letter by certified mail, and request a return re­ceipt. This is your proof

of the date the creditor received the letter. Also, keep a copy of your dispute letter.

 

Unless the problem was resolved, the creditor must acknowl­edge your complaint in writing within 30 days after receiving it. The creditor must resolve the dispute within two billing cycles (but not more than 90 days) after receiving your letter.

 

·        ATM Cards, Debit Cards and Electronic Fund Transfers

 

The Electronic Fund Transfer Act provides consumer protections and limits liability for unauthorized transfers involving any electronic way to debit or credit an account, including ATM and debit cards.  It is important to report lost or stolen ATM and debit cards immediately because the amount you can be held responsible for depends on how quickly you report the loss. 

 

If you report your ATM card lost or stolen within two business days of discovering it, your losses are limited to $50.  If you report your ATM card lost or stolen after the two business days, but within 60 days after a statement showing an unauthorized electronic fund transfer, you can be liable for up to $500 of what a thief withdraws.  If you wait more than the 60 days, you could lose all the money that was taken from your account between the end of the 60 day time limit and the date you report your card missing.  (Note: In most instances, VISA and MasterCard voluntarily agreed to limit consumers' liability for unautho­rized use of their debit cards to $50 per card, regardless of how much time elapsed since the discovery of the loss or theft of the card.)

 

In the event of an error or fraudulent transaction, immediately call the financial institution and follow up in writing.   Send the letter by certified mail with a return receipt requested so you can prove when the institution received your letter. Keep a copy of the letter you send for your records. 

 

After notification about an error on your statement, the institution generally has 10 business days to investigate. (The institution may take up to 45 days to complete the investi­gation, but only if the money in dispute is returned to your account and you are notified promptly of the credit. At the end of the investigation, if no error has been found, the institution may take the money back if it sends you a written explanation.) The institution must tell you the results of the investigation within three days of its completion. If an error is found, the institution must correct the problem within one business day of its discovery.

 

·        Debt Collectors

 

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act prohibits debt collectors from using unfair or deceptive practices to collect overdue bills that a creditor has forwarded for collection.  You can stop a debt collector from contacting you by writing a letter to the collection agency telling them to stop.  Once the debt collector receives the letter, the company may not contact you again with two exceptions: they can tell you there will be no further contact, and they can tell you that the debt collector or the creditor intends to take some specific action.

 

A collector also may not contact you if, within 30 days after you receive the written notice, you send the collection agency a letter stating you do not owe the money.  Although such a letter should stop the debt collector’s calls, it will not necessarily get rid of the debt itself which may still turn up on your credit report.  In addition, a collector can renew collection activities if you sent proof of the debt.  So, along with you letter stating you don’t owe the money, include copies of documents that support your position. 

 

RESOURCES

 

Federal Government

 

Federal Trade Commission (FTC) www.ftc.gov

If you've been a victim of identity theft, file a complaint with the FTC by contacting the FTC's Identity Theft Hotline by telephone: toll-free 1-877-IDTHEFT (438-4338); TDD: 202-326-2502; by mail: Identity Theft Clearinghouse, Federal Trade Commission, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Wash­ington, DC 20580; or online: www.consumer.gov/idtheft

 

Banking Agencies

If you're having trouble getting your financial institution to help you resolve your banking-related identity theft problems --including problems with bank-issued credit cards -- contact the agency with the appropriate jurisdiction. If you're not sure which agency has jurisdiction over your institution, call your bank or visit www.ffiec.gov/nic/default.htm

 

Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) - www.fdic.gov

The FDIC supervises state-chartered banks that are not members of the Federal Reserve System and insures deposits at banks and savings and loans.  Call the FDIC Consumer Call Center at 1-800-934-3342; or write: Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Division of Compliance and Consumer Affairs, 550 17th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20429.

 

National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) - www.ncua.gov

The NCUA charters and supervises federal credit unions and insures deposits at federal credit unions and many state credit unions. Call: 703-518-6360; or write: Compliance Officer, National Credit Union Administration, 1775 Duke Street, Alexandria, VA 22314.

 

Department of Justice (DOJ) - www.usdoj.gov

The DOJ and its U.S. Attorneys prosecute federal identity theft cases. Information on identity theft is available at www.usdoj.gov/criminal/fraud/idtheft.html

 

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) - www.fbi.gov

The FBI is one of the federal criminal law enforcement agencies that investigates cases of identity theft.  Local field offices are listed in the Blue Pages of your telephone directory.

 

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) - www.fcc.gov

The FCC regulates interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable. The FCC's Consumer Information Bureau is the consumer's one-stop source for information, forms, applications and current issues before the FCC. Call: 1-888-CALL-FCC; TTY: 1-888-TELL-FCC; or write: Federal Communications Commission, Consumer Information Bureau, 445 12th Street, SW, Room 5A863, Washington, DC 20554. You can file complaints via the online complaint form at www.fcc.gov, or e-mail questions to fccinfo@fcc.gov.

 

Internal Revenue Service (IRS) - www.treas.gov/irs/ci

The IRS is responsible for administering and enforcing the internal revenue laws. If you believe someone has assumed your identity to file federal Income Tax Returns, or to commit other tax fraud, call toll-free: 1-800-829-0433. For assistance to victims of identity theft schemes who are having trouble filing their correct returns, call the IRS Taxpayer Advocates Office, toll-free: 1-877-777-4778.

 

Social Security Administration (SSA) - www.ssa.gov

SSA may assign you a new Social Security number - at your request - if you continue to experience problems even after trying to resolve the problems resulting from identity theft. SSA field office employees work closely with victims of identity theft and third parties to collect the evidence needed to assign a new Social Security number in these cases. SSA Office of the Inspector General (SSA/OIG) is one of the federal law enforcement agencies that investigates cases of identity theft.  Direct allegations that a Social Security number has been stolen or misused to the SSA Fraud Hotline. Call: 1-800-269-0271; fax: 410-597-0118; write: SSA Fraud Hotline, P.O. Box 17768, Baltimore, MD 21235; or e-mail: oig.hotline@ssa.gov

 

U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) - www.usps.gov/websites/depart/inspect

The USPIS is one of the federal law enforcement agencies that investigate cases of identity theft. USPIS is the law enforcement arm of the U.S. Postal Service. USPIS has primary jurisdiction in all matters infringing on the integrity of the U.S. mail. You can locate the USPIS district office nearest you by calling your local post office or checking the list at the web site above.

 

 

U.S. Trustee (UST) - www.usdoj.gov/ust

If you believe someone has filed for bankruptcy using your name, write to the U.S. Trustee in the region where the bankruptcy was filed. A list of the U.S. Trustee's Regional Offices is available on the UST web site, or check the Blue Pages of your phone book under U.S. Government - Bankruptcy Adminis­tration. Your letter should describe the situation and provide proof of your identity. If you provide appro­priate documentation to substantiate your claim, the U.S. Trustee will make a referral to criminal law enforcement authorities. You also may want to file a complaint with the U.S. Attorney and/or the FBI in the city where the bankruptcy was filed.  The U.S. Trustee does not provide legal representation, legal advice or referrals to lawyers. That means you may need to hire an attorney to help convince the bankruptcy court that the filing is fraudu­lent. The U.S. Trustee does not provide consumers with copies of court documents.  These documents are available from the bankruptcy clerk's office for a fee.

 

State and Local Governments

Many states and local governments have passed laws related to identity theft; others may be considering such legislation. Where specific identity theft laws do not exist, the practices may be prohibited under other laws. Contact your State Attorney General's office (for a list of state offices, visit www.naag.org) or local consumer protection agency to find out whether your state has laws related to identity theft, or visit www.consumer.gov/idtheft/

 

Credit Bureaus

Equifax - www.equifax.com

To order your report, call: 1-800-685-1111 or write: P.O. Box 740241, Atlanta, GA 30374-0241.  To report fraud, call: 1-800-525-6285 and write to the above address.

 

Experian - www.experian.com

To order your report, call: 1-888-EXPERIAN (397-3742) or write: P.O. Box 949, Allen TX 75013-0949.  To report fraud, call the above number and write to the above address.

 

Trans Union - www.tuc.com

To order your report, call: 1-800-916-8800 or write: P.O. Box 1000, Chester, PA 19022. To report fraud, call: 1-800-680-7289 and write: Fraud Victim Assistance Division, P.O. Box 6790, Fullerton, CA 92634