Consumer Corner with Anita Wilson: Identity theft is real, but there are ways to combat it

  • WILSON

For the Recorder
Published: 8/18/2022 2:13:22 PM

We get calls every week in the Consumer Protection Unit from residents asking for help because they believe they may be the victim of identity theft. Identity theft happens when someone uses personal information such as your name, date of birth or Social Security number for their financial gain.

With this information, people can open up credit card accounts, cellphone or utility accounts, or borrow money. They might also gain access to your credit card or bank accounts and use them for their benefit, leaving you stuck with the bill.

Identity theft has become a costly problem for consumers around the country. The Federal Trade Commission received more than 1.4 million identity theft reports in 2021, of which about 16,500 came from residents in Massachusetts. Losses last year to identity theft total $2.3 billion nationally. Identity thieves may steal your personal and financial information from data breaches, hacking, phishing emails, phone scams and other sources.

It may be difficult to avoid, but if you recognize the signs, you may be able to lessen the impact on your financial future. In this column, I hope to share some tips about avoiding identity theft.

Last month, I shared information about the importance of checking your credit reports with the three credit reporting agencies — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — to look for signs of identity theft. Once you receive your credit reports, verify that all of the accounts and information on the reports is correct. If there are accounts or debts on the report that don’t belong to you, report them to the credit reporting agencies and to the bank or creditor.

Checking credit card bills, bank statements and health insurance statements carefully for unexpected charges are also effective ways to catch identity theft. Any bogus charges should be reported immediately.

Watch out for these other signs of identity theft:

■Receiving bills for accounts you didn’t open.

■Phone calls or notices from debt collectors about debts you don’t recognize.

■A notice from the IRS about a tax return you didn’t file.

■Charges for services you didn’t receive on medical insurance statements.

■A notice from your state unemployment agency about benefits you didn’t apply for.

■Not receiving bills or statements that you would normally get in the mail.

If you do see any of these warning signs, report it to the appropriate company or agency. If it involves a charge on a credit or bank account, call the fraud department immediately so that they can investigate and assist in resolving the problem. If it involves a government agency, contact them directly to report the fraud.

For example, one resident we worked with received a debt collection notice from a phone company about an account that he never opened. We helped him contact the phone company, report the account to the fraud department and prove that he never opened the account.

Another caller reported that she stopped receiving her mail. She contacted the U.S. Postal Service and found that someone had filled out a form and had the mail forwarded to an address in another state. One of the steps we recommended to this consumer was to fill out an identity theft report with the Federal Trade Commission. Any victim of identity theft can do so at IdentityTheft.gov or by calling 877-438-4338. It allows consumers to report what happened and creates an action plan for recovering from identity theft.

You can lower your risk of identity theft by protecting your personal information in the following ways:

■Shred papers that have personal or medical information.

■Only give your Social Security number when absolutely necessary, such as when opening a bank account or filing your taxes. Otherwise, ask if you can use another form of identification.

■Never give out personal or account information to anyone who calls or emails you.

■Use passwords that are difficult to guess and use multifactor authentication, which requires another method to verify your identity, such as a cellphone number or email address, when you log into your account.

■Beware of emails and text messsages with links or attachments. They might look real but could be from an imposter. You should verify the information by exiting the email or text and going to the real website or app.

■Freeze your credit reports with Experian, Equifax and TransUnion to stop someone from being approved for credit cards and loans in your name.

If you have questions or would like more information about preventing and recognizing identiy theft, please call the Consumer Protection Unit in Greenfield at 413-774-3186, or in Northampton at 413-586-9225.

Anita Wilson is the director of the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office Consumer Protection Unit, which is a Local Consumer Program working in cooperation with the Office of the Massachusetts Attorney General.

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