Millions of Americans are having a good laugh as Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy battle it out in “Identity Thief,” a comedy about a man whose identity is stolen and the thief runs up big debts on his credit card.
But for those who have first-hand experience with identity fraud, it probably isn’t so funny.
One man in particular, Internal Revenue Service acting commissioner Steven Miller, isn’t laughing at all. Calling ID theft “one of the biggest challenges facing the IRS today,” Miller’s agency recently conducted a national sweep that nabbed 389 ID theft suspects in 32 states. In 2012 alone, the IRS opened more than 900 identity theft investigations.
Obviously, it’s a widespread problem — 8.6 million households experienced one of more type of ID fraud in 2010, according to the Bureau of Justice. And it’s a problem that will only grow as more and more of our financial transactions move to the Internet.
Once who’ve become a victim, you have an uphill battle to reclaim what’s rightfully yours. With that in mind, it’s best to protect yourself and not become a victim in the first place. It’s not as difficult as you might think. Rather, it’s simply a matter of being aware of how your information is being handled and taking precautionary steps to ensure it’s secure. These tips from the Federal Trade Commission are a good place to start:
• Lock your financial documents and records in a safe place at home.
• Limit what you carry. When you go out, take only the identification, credit, and debit cards you need. Leave your Social Security card at home.
• Before you share information at your workplace, a business, your child’s school, or a doctor’s office, ask why they need it, how they will safeguard it, and the consequences of not sharing.
• Shred receipts, credit offers, credit applications, insurance forms, physician statements, checks, bank statements, expired charge cards, and similar documents when you don’t need them any longer.
• Destroy the labels on prescription bottles before you throw them out.
• Take outgoing mail to post office collection boxes or the post office. Promptly remove mail that arrives in your mailbox. If you won’t be home for several days, request a vacation hold on your mail.
• Consider opting out of prescreened offers of credit and insurance by mail. To opt out, call 1-888-567-8688 or go to optoutprescreen.com.
• Check your credit reports annually.
But if all fails and you suspect you’ve become a victim, be smarter than Bateman’s character - notify the fraud departments of all three credit agencies, close all suspect accounts, and file a report with your local police and with police where you believe the crime occurred. You should also notify any government agencies such as the Social Security Administration and Bureau of Motor Vehicles that have issued you identification documents.